AS A TEACHER IN AMERICA
The Swami, finding that the lecture bureau was exploiting and defrauding him, soon shook himself free from American lecturing organizations. At the beginning of the winter of 1894, he returned to New York after a whirlwind tour through various centres of learning and culture in America. His
previous visits to this noted city had been only casual. He had given only a few public lectures but was not in a position to begin any constructive work. With a view to starting regular work the Swami now readily accepted the invitation of the Brooklyn Ethical Association to deliver a series of lectures. These lectures produced the desired effect and opened a new avenue for organizing the work in America. He soon found a group of earnest souls who were seriously bent on following the guidance of the Swami for spiritual enlightenment. The Swami gave his whole time to teaching by means of talks and lectures, and every day instructed this band of chosen followers in the exercise of the double method of Raja-Yoga and Jnana-Yoga. His lectures at this time were replete with the deepest philosophical insight and with extraordinary outbursts of devotion, revealing his nature as essentially a combination of the Jnani and Bhakta – the illumined saint and true mystic in one.
Prominent among those who became his ardent followers at this time were Mrs. Ole Bull, Dr. Day, Miss S.E. Waldo, Professors Wyman and Wright, Dr. Street, and many clergymen and laymen of note. Mr. and Mrs. Francis Leggett and Miss MacLeod, well-known society people of New York, became his most intimate friends. By the month of June 1895, the Swami had placed his real constructive work on a solid foundation, and also finished writing his famous treatise on Raja-Yoga, dictated to Miss S.E. Waldo (afterwards Sister Haridasi), which soon attracted the attention of American psychologists like William James. The Swami also had support from wealthy and influential followers, and whatever he could save from the financial returns he received went towards further consolidation of his work. All through the year the Swami’s work was enormous; he was working intensely; lecturing both privately and publicly, he began to feel himself wearing out. But the Swami was satisfied that the ideals of the Sanatana Dharma, the Eternal Religion, were spreading and percolating through the whole thought-world of America, and that they were very often echoed in pulpits and in rostrums, though it might be that he received no credit for them.
Having almost exhausted himself by this uninterrupted work of class and public lecturing, the Swami now eagerly sought a place of retreat where he could give a modicum of rest to his shattered nerves and train up a group of students for future action. One of the students, Miss Dutcher, owned a handsome cottage at Thousand Island Park, the largest island in the St. Lawrence River and she offered the use of it to the Swami and as many of the students as it would accommodate.
The place was ideally situated, overlooking a wide sweep of the beautiful river with many of its far-famed Thousand Islands. Not a human sound penetrated the seclusion of the house. The inmates heard but the murmur of the insects, the sweet songs of the birds, or the gentle sighing of the wind through the leaves. Part of the time the scene was illumined by the soft rays of the moon and her face was mirrored in the shining waters beneath.
In this scene of enchantment, the devoted students spent seven blessed weeks with their beloved teacher, listening to his words of inspiration. This group of twelve included, Miss S.E. Waldo and Miss Greenstidel who later became Sister Christine and ably assisted Sister Nivedita in her educational work in India.
During the Swami’s stay in this island he threw light upon all manner of subjects, historical and philosophical, spiritual and temporal. It was as if the contents of his nature were pouring themselves forth as a grand revelation of the manysidedness of the Eternal Truth. Certainly the seven weeks lived at Thousand Island Park were one of the freest and the greatest periods in the Swami’s life. Surrounded by ardent disciples he was there in the uninterrupted stillness of the island retreat, in an atmosphere reminiscent of that in which his Master had lived and taught in the Dakshineswar days of old. The whirlwind of spiritual rhapsody and ecstasy that had swept the souls of devotees in Dakshineswar on the bank of the Ganga, swept here anew the souls of other devotees in this lonely region. Some glimpses of his ecstatic utterances of this period can be had in Inspired Talks, a book which owes not a little to the sedulous care and industry of Miss Waldo, one of this enthusiastic group of students on the island. It was in the silence of this retreat that the Swami wrote also the immortal Song of the Sannyasin, which has now become one of the most precious legacies to spiritually-minded souls.
Having fulfilled his great work of training and initiating disciples into Brahmacharya and Sannyasa at Thousand Island Park, the Swami returned to New York, from where he soon sailed to England to carry to the British people the same message which he had preached in America. During his absence the work of spreading Vedanta was carried on uninterrupted by the group of his trained disciples. But the Swami’s presence was greatly needed in the New World for the consolidation of the various work started there. So he soon returned.
With a view to giving a concrete shape to his Vedantic work on the American soil, the Swami after the close of his public lectures in the latter part of February 1896, organized the Vedanta movement into a definite society and began to issue his teachings in book form. Thus came into existence The Vedanta Society of New York, a nonsectarian body with the aim of preaching and practising Vedanta and applying its principles to all faiths. Its members met regularly at appointed times for the purpose of carrying on co-operative and organized work, and for the study and propaganda of Vedanta literature. Some of the great works like Raja-Yoga, Bhakti-Yoga, and Karma-Yoga had already been published and aroused a interest among some of the great savants and thinkers of America.
One of the principal purposes of the Swami in organizing his classes into this Society was particularly to bring about an interchange of ideas and ideals between the East and the West. Already he had in his mind the plan of bringing from India some of his brother-disciples to teach and preach in America, and also of having some of his American, and English disciples in India to teach and preach there. In America it would be religious teaching, and in India it would be practical training – a message of science, industry, economics, applied sociology, organization, and co-operation. The Indian needed that energy, that dexterity in action, that thirst for improvement which characterized the freedom-loving people of the active West. In the opinion of the Swami, the Orient would be benefited by greater activity and energy like that of the West, as the latter would profit by a mixture of Eastern introspection and the meditative habit. The Swami made Mr. Francis H. Leggett, one of the wealthy and influential residents of the city of New York, the President of this newly formed Vedanta Society.
The universal teachings and profound learning of the Swami made a deep impression upon the minds of the American intelligentsia. He was even offered the Chair of Oriental Philosophy at Harvard university and at Columbia the Chair of Sanskrit. Besides the distinguished psychologists and philosophers, influential persons of other fields of thought also were charmed with his erudition and knowledge of science and arts. The fearless outspokenness of the Swami often alienated that general approval for which so many public workers slave and sacrifice their true views and their principles. But, after all, he found that the American public, though at first it might appear to resent, would afterwards regard with great admiration one who dared to speak openly of what he felt were the drawbacks of its civilization. At the end of his American work the Swami was thoroughly tired. Everything he did, said, or wrote was at the white heat of intensity; and this undoubtedly undermined even his strong constitution. His friends knew that he had given himself wholly and unstintedly for the good of those who made his message the gospel of their lives.