We have seen something of the religious disposition of Naren, his love for gods and goddesses, and his tendency to meditate. But as his intellectual horizon began to widen and he came more and more in contact with Western philosophy and science, Narendra Nath began to question his
youthful theism and orthodox beliefs. Gradually his doubts and questionings took the form of an intellectual tempest which raged furiously and made him restless. He had faith and devotion, but he wanted reason to support them. At times he would think reason was the surest guide in life and reason could lead one to the realization of the ultimate Reality. But it was patent that a pale, bloodless reason could not satisfy human emotions, nor could it save one in the hour of trials and temptations. The study of John Stuart Mill, Hume, and Herbert Spencer raised a tumult of thoughts in him till his harassing doubts turned into a settled philosophical scepticism. But even in this, his innate religious nature gave him no rest. He longed for the Unknown, hungered for the realization of the Reality.
At this time the influence of the renowned Brahmo leader, Keshab Chandra Sen, over the young Bengali intellectuals was strong. Narendra Nath also was captivated by the lectures and writings of Keshab Chandra Sen. He began to interest himself in the Brahmo movement and actually became a member of the Sadharan Brahmo Samaj. The Brahmo movement protested against certain forms and tenets of the orthodox Hindu, such as polytheism, image worship, Divine Incarnation, and the need of a Guru (spiritual guide). It offered a monotheistic religion which repudiated all these. On the social side, it stood for reforms in the way of breaking up of the caste system and the caste consciousness, the recognition of the equality of man, the education and emancipation of women, and so on. It is not surprising that this movement captured the imagination of young Bengal. Naren came to regard the Samaj as an ideal institution in which might be solved all problems of life, individual and national. He chafed under the rigidity of caste and had no sympathy with polytheism and image worship. He espoused the cause with all earnestness and became imbued with the same ideas as the Brahmo leaders.
For a time the intellectual atmosphere of the Brahmo Samaj satisfied him; he felt uplifted during the prayer and devotional songs. Gradually it began to dawn on him that, if God was to be realized, he was no nearer the goal than before he joined it. What were philosophies and Vedas but attempts to describe the Indescribable? They were useless if they did not bring one to the feet of the Lord!
In his longing to know the Truth he turned to Maharshi Devendra Nath Tagore, the Brahmo leader, who was regarded by many as one of the best of spiritual teachers. Tense with excitement, one day he approached him and burst out with the question: 'Sir, have you seen God?' The Maharshi was startled by such a question. Mad in his spiritual longing, Narendra Nath went to the leaders of other religious sects, but not one of them could satisfy him.
While Narendra Nath was thus suffering— his faith in Hinduism being undermined, and himself prey to the conflict of his own thoughts — there lived, four miles to the north of Calcutta, one whom people knew as Sri Ramakrishna and whose life was one long-drawn spiritual ecstasy—a bliss of the highest kind. The life of Sri Ramakrishna was just the antithesis of that of Narendra Nath. Sri Ramakrishna came of a poor, orthodox Brahmin family of a village in the district of Hooghly, where a ray of Western civilization had not reached. He had scarcely any secular learning and became a priest in the temple of Goddess Kali at Dakshineswar. Soon by his sincerity and intense Sadhana (spiritual endeavour) he realized a living presence in the image of Kali, who was now more than an earthly mother to him. Afterwards he performed spiritual practices as advocated by almost all schools of Hindu thought, and his life covered, as it were, the whole gamut of Hinduism. Not content with this he practised other religions also and came to the direct conclusion that all religions pointed to the same goal. Afterwards he lived a life more in tune with God than with the external world.
Narendra Nath once heard about Sri Rama-krishna from the principal of his college, William Hastie. One day Principal Hastie, while holding a class on Wordsworth, found it difficult to explain the ecstasy of the poet to his students. Then he said that for visual proof of such an experience one might go to Dakshineswar to see Ramakrishna, whom he had witnessed as enjoying that blessed state. Narendra Nath also once met Sri Ramakrishna at the house of a devotee in Calcutta, where Narendra Nath was invited to sing. Now, in his mental crisis, Narendra Nath suddenly remembered Sri Ramakrishna and decided to go to Dakshineswar to find out if Sri Ramakrishna had the direct experience of God.
Narendra Nath went to Dakshineswar with some friends. Wrapped in his own thought, careless about his body and dress, and unmindful of the external world, Naren entered the room of Sri Ramakrishna. His eyes bespoke an introspective mind, as if some part of it were always concentrated upon something within. Sri Ramakrishna was surprised to find such a spiritual soul coming from the material atmosphere of Calcutta, as he said afterwards. Narendra Nath sang two Bengali songs at the request of Sri Ramakrishna. There was so much feeling and devotion in these songs that Sri Ramakrishna fell into Samadhi. After that Sri
Ramakrishna beckoned Naren to go to the side room as if to give some private instructions. When Narendra Nath did so, Sri Ramakrishna began to shed tears of joy like one meeting a long-lost dear one. Then amidst sobs and with great tenderness Sri Ramakrishna began to tell how he was waiting for him for a long time, for his ears were well-nigh burnt in listening to the profane words of worldly people and he wanted the companionship of one who could appreciate his innermost experience. Narendra Nath was also told that he had a great spiritual mission to fulfil.
Narendra Nath was bewildered and thought Sri Ramakrishna must be a madman in talking that way. Before Sri Ramakrishna returned to his room, Narendra Nath promised that he would come again. In great amazement Narendra Nath came back to his friends. He now began to watch Sri Ramakrishna, and to his great surprise there was no strangeness in his behaviour. From his words and ecstatic states it transpired he was a genuine man of God. In the course of conversation Sri Ramakrishna said, 'God can be realized. One can see and talk to Him as I am doing with you. But who cares to do so?' There was so much ring of sincerity in these words that Narendra Nath could not disbelieve Sri Ramakrishna. It became apparent to him that these words came from the depth of his realization. But how to reconcile this with the strange conduct he had witnessed just now? Narendra Nath was in a great conflict. With utter confusion he returned to Calcutta. He could not decide whether Sri Ramakrishna was a monomaniac or not. But he could not deny that he was a great saint. He was at a loss to account for the strange feeling of blessedness that he experienced in the presence of Sri Ramakrishna. In spite of himself, Narendra Nath was drawn to Sri Ramakrishna.
In about a month Narendra Nath once again set out for Dakshineswar, this time to encounter a stranger experience. Sri Ramakrishna received him very affectionately and called him to sit on the bed by his side. Then as Sri Ramakrishna in an ecstatic mood touched Narendra Nath, the latter became unconscious of the external world. To quote the words of Narendra Nath as he described the incident afterwards: 'The touch at once gave rise to a unique experience within me. With my eyes open I saw the walls and everything in the room whirl rapidly and vanish into naught, and the whole universe together with my individuality was about to merge in an all-encompassing mysterious Void! I was terribly frightened and thought I was facing death....Unable to control myself, I cried out, ?What is this that you are doing to me? I have my parents at home!? He laughed aloud at this and stroking my breast said, ?All right, let it rest now. Everything will come in time!? The wonder of it was that no sooner had he said this than that strange experience of mine vanished. I was myself again and found everything within and without the room as it had been before.'
This incident wounded the vanity of Narendra Nath very much. He could not account for the fact that one, by mere touch, could revolutionize his mind. Was it mesmerism or hypnotism? It could be possible only with respect to weak minds. But Narendra Nath had so long prided himself on being just the reverse! This man could not be a lunatic as he thought him to be. Everything seemed like an enigma to him. The rationalistic mind of Narendra Nath received an unpleasant rebuff at this failure in judging the true state of things. In any case Narendra Nath was on guard to resist similar experiences. But at the same time he was fascinated by the remarkable personality of Sri Ramakrishna. He looked as pure and simple as a child! Narendra Nath was extremely drawn to him. So in about a week's time he came to Dakshineswar again.
But in the third visit Narendra Nath did no better, though he was on the defensive against any influence on the part of Sri Ramakrishna. This time
Sri Ramakrishna took him to an adjacent garden and fell into ecstasy. In that state as he touched Narendra Nath, the latter, in spite of all precautions, was overwhelmed and lost all outward consciousness. When he came to himself he found Sri Ramakrishna stroking his chest.
Narendra had no idea of what had happened in the meantime. But it was then that Sri Ramakrishna learnt many things about him. Referring to this incident Sri Ramakrishna said later on that in that state as Narendra Nath dived deep into himself, Sri Ramakrishna studied his inner life, and the study only confirmed what he had inferred about his future disciple.
Narendra Nath was fully convinced of the extraordinary nature of that mighty power which was working through Sri Ramakrishna. The idea that Sri Ramakrishna was a monomaniac was replaced by a feeling of profound respect for him. He recognized Sri Ramakrishna as a great spiritual personality, but his mind was not fully prepared to accept him as a Guru. His mental make-up as well as his associations with the Brahmo Samaj prevented him from believing in the necessity of a Guru. How could a man, however great, be an unerring guide? So he would not accept any word of Sri Ramakrishna without testing it by his own experience or reason.
But Narendra Nath was conquered by the love of Sri Ramakrishna. He would now be coming to Dakshineswar as often as he could. Sri Ramakrishna also would be eagerly waiting for him. If Narendra Nath did not meet him for a long period, Sri Ramakrishna would pass sleepless nights. A mother suffering bereavement of her only child does not feel so much pang and anguish as Sri Ramakrishna did at the absence of Narendra Nath. And when Narendra Nath would come, at his very sight Sri Ramakrishna sometimes would go into ecstasy. There were many occasions when at the singing of Narendra Nath, Sri Ramakrishna would be lost in Samadhi.
Sri Ramakrishna saw the potential greatness of Narendra Nath. He was all praise for him. If other devotees could be likened to stars, Narendra Nath was a sun; if others were lotuses of six or ten or sixteen petals, Narendra Nath was a lotus of a thousand petals. Narendra Nath was a liberated soul from his very birth, born on this earth for the good of humanity. Often Sri Ramakrishna praised Narendra Nath so much that the latter had to remonstrate with him, saying that those conclusions were the outcome of his weak mind— a mind weakened by too much love for him.
With all his love for Sri Ramakrishna, Naren did not cease to wrestle with him. Naren did not believe in the need of a Guru, Naren did not believe in image worship, Naren did not believe in spiritual monism. Sri Ramakrishna had a hard time convincing his dear Naren about these. Sometimes exasperated, Sri Ramakrishna said to Narendra Nath, 'If you do not believe in my words, why do you come to me?' Immediately came the reply from Naren, 'Because I love you. But that does not mean that I shall accept your words without exercising my critical judgment.' Sri Ramakrishna only rejoiced at the intellectual sincerity of Narendra Nath. Of all the disciples Narendra Nath was the only one who would dare to challenge the very realizations of Sri Ramakrishna—so much so that at times Sri Ramakrishna had to go to the Divine Mother at the temple for a solution of the perplexity created in his mind by Narendra Nath. Naren would take the utmost liberty with Sri Ramakrishna. For others Sri Ramakrishna would prescribe this or that restriction as a spiritual guidance. But for Narendra Nath, there was no restriction whatsoever. Naren was a roaring fire. No impurity could touch him. He could not go wrong. So there was no necessity for any imposition on Narendra Nath.
It is very difficult to describe the sweet relationship that existed between Sri Ramakrishna and Narendra Nath. Sri Ramakrishna confided the innermost secrets of his heart to Naren and helped him in a variety of ways to develop independence of thought, thus increasing thousandfold Naren's self-reliance, regard for truth, and innate spirituality. Naren's regard for Sri Ramakrishna also increased thousandfold as days rolled on, and he was beginning to accept him as the highest ideal of spirituality.
When Narendra Nath was dreaming of the fulfilment of his spiritual longing, an unexpected trouble came for him which upset him altogether. In the first part of 1884 Narendra Nath's father, who was the only support of the family, suddenly died of heart problems. He had spent more than he had earned, and at his death the family was faced with dire poverty. The creditors were knocking at the door. Narendra Nath's relatives, for whom his father had done so much, became enemies, even threatening to oust the family from the home. The burden of support of six or seven people, therefore, fell upon Narendra Nath. He had passed his B.A. Examination and was admitted to Law college. The son of a rich father, he was now the poorest of the poor in the college. Even shoes became a luxury, his garments were of the coarsest cloth, and many times he went to his classes hungry.