Before taking up the work that awaited him on his return to India, the Swami’s first object was to visit Mrs. Sevier at the Advaita Ashrama, in Mayavati. On his arrival at the Belur Math, he had the confirmation of his premonition of the passing away of his beloved disciple, Mr. Sevier, which had occurred on October 28, 1900. Without stopping to rest at Belur, he telegraphed to Mayavati that he was coming to the Ashrama. He arrived on January 3, 1901, and despite the mingled joy and emotion he felt at meeting Mrs. Sevier again, in seeing the work finished, and in contemplating the beauty of the Ashrama perched on the mountain-slope he could stay there only for a fortnight; asthma suffocated him. The Swami had to come Backto the Belur Math on January 24. Apart from a last pilgrimage that he made with his mother to the holy places of Eastern Bengal and Assam, to Dacca and Shillong, which left him exhausted, he left Belur only for a short stay at Varanasi at the beginning of 1902. The great journey of his life was soon to end.
After his return from the tour in East Bengal and Assam, which was the last public tour undertaken by the Swami, his health was much worse. The monks were greatly concerned. They now urged him to have complete rest; they begged him to give up all thought of appearing before the public until he should be perfectly well. But as was his wont, he gave frequent interviews to all who flocked to the Belur Math in these days from all parts of India to receive his blessings and instructions.
At the monastery he lived a simple life, free from the monotony of society and its tiresome conventionalities. He was a ‘Sannyasin free’. He would freely walk about barefooted or with plain slippers on and sometimes with a staff in hand – full of mirth like a boy. Here he was free of the necessity to dress according to the dictates of society. With a kaupin or a piece of Gerua (ochre) cloth on, he could live in a world of his own in monastic silence and seclusion. At times he would be found taking interest in the garden or experimenting in cooking or finding delight in the company of his pet animals – ‘Bagha’ the dog, ‘Hansi’ the she-goat, ‘Matru’ the kid, an antelope, a stork, cows, and so on. At this time who could recognize in him the world-renowned Swami Vivekananda! At other times he would instruct or help the members of the Math in their difficulties, always manifesting the greatest tenderness. Almost daily until his passing, he held Vedantic classes to teach the novices the methods of meditation, inspired the workers with a spirit of virile confidence in themselves, paid strict attention to discipline and cleanliness, drew up a weekly timetable and kept a watchful eye over the regularity of all the daily activities. No negligence escaped the vigilance of the Swami. He always maintained an atmosphere of serene peace and holiness. He was the irresistible magnet and the inmates of the Ashrama were as so many iron filings drawn towards him, often without understanding why, but always loving him. Every word of this great teacher was instinct with life and vigour and acted with telling effect on all who listened.
Once when he saw some monks and Brahma-charins going for worship to the temple, he said to them, ‘Where shall you go to seek Brahman? He is immanent in all beings. Here, here is the visible Brahman! Shame on those who, neglecting the visible Brahman, set their minds on other things. Here is the Brahman before you as tangible as a fruit in one’s hand!’ So forceful was his utterance that everyone felt an ineffable peace and remained for nearly a quarter of an hour rooted to the spot. The scene was unforgettable. Everyone in the monastery was struck with amazement at the wonderful power of the beloved Leader who with but one word could raise the minds of all to the heights of Supreme Insight.
About the latter part of the year 1901, a number of Santal labourers used to work in the Math grounds. One day he served a beautiful feast for them at which he said, ‘You are Narayanas; today I have entertained Narayana Himself.’ Then turning towards his disciples, he said to them, ‘See how simple-hearted these poor illiterate people are. Will you be able to relieve their miseries to some extent at least? Otherwise, of what use is our wearing the Gerua (the ochre robe of the Sannyasin)??How can we have the heart to put a morsel into our mouths when our countrymen have not enough wherewith to feed or clothe themselves??Let us throw away all pride of learning and study of the Shastras and all Sadhanas for the attainment of personal Mukti – and going from village to village devote our lives to the service of the poor, and by convincing the rich men about their duties to the masses, through the force of our character and spirituality and austere living, get money and the means wherewith to serve the poor and the distressed. Alas! Nobody in our country thinks for the low, the poor, and the miserable! Those that are the backbone of the nation, whose labour produces food, those whose one day’s strike from work raises a cry of general distress in the city – where is the man in our country who sympathizes with them, who shares in their joys and sorrows??Unless they are elevated, the great Mother (India) will never awake!?What I see clear as daylight is that the same Brahman, the same Shakti is in them as in me! Only there is a difference in the degree of manifestation – that is all. In the whole history of the world have you ever seen a country rise unless there was a uniform circulation of the national blood all over its body? Know this for certain, that no great work can be done by that body, one limb of which is paralysed.?After so much Tapasya (asceticism) I have known that the highest truth is this: He is present in every being! These are all the manifold forms of Him. There is no other God to seek for! He alone is worshipping God who serves all beings!’
The days glided by in the Math as if they were hours. Whatever the mood in which the Swami might be, for his Gurubhais and disciples his presence was in itself a constant source of joy and inspiration. Whether he was impatient, whether he reprimanded, whether he was the teacher or the meditating sage, whether he was full of mirth or grave – to his Gurubhais he was always the beloved ‘Naren’, and to his disciples the blessed and incomparable Guru. The joy of the Swami was great when meditation and austerities were in full swing in the Math. Whenever his health permitted, he joined in the morning meditation in the chapel. His presence in the meditation room invariably lent an added power and intensity to the meditations of those who sat with him.
In spite of his physical ailment, the Swami was eager till the end to receive friends and visitors and instruct his disciples. Everything must be sacrificed, even the body itself. Sometimes hearing of the plight of earnest seekers who were refused admission to his presence by the monks, he would be so deeply moved with pity that he would say, ‘Look here! Did not the Master preach unto the very end? And shall I not do the same? I do not care a straw if the body goes! You cannot imagine how happy I am when I find earnest seekers after truth to talk to. In the work of waking up the Atman in my fellow-men I shall gladly die again and again!’ But on some other occasions, in the midst of his talks his face would assume a dreamy far-away look and then all would leave him, knowing that he wished to be left alone with his thoughts.