11. First Fruits
Two events which took place a few days before her formal dedication had brought Nivedita into the very’ heart of the life which her guru had designed for her. He had to all appearance merely sought to give her a clear indication of her future environment and a taste of the atmosphere she was to breathe, before finally committing her by her initiation. In practice, he was also throwing a bridge between her and the most orthodox Hindu life, and he stood by her like a guarantor until he was sure that she would receive a full welcome.
For India, with its exclusiveness, might have expelled instead of accepted her – even though by her association with her guru she already belonged to the company of those who have renounced the world and, through that fact alone, stand above all caste laws. On both these two occasions, therefore, Swami Vive-kananda arranged that the foreign disciple should be publicly welcomed and dedicated to the service of India. For these moral initiations he chose, first, the Calcutta crowd, over which he held great ascendancy, and second, the more subtle and penetrating contact with Sri Sarada Devi, the widow of Sri Rama-krishna, whose sphere of influence included all disciples devoted to the Math.
Less than two months after Nivedita’s arrival in India – on March 11th – she made her first public appearance, as arranged by the Swami, on the lecture platform: one of several speakers to take over a program before an excited and enthusiastic audience from a populous quarter of Calcutta. The subject of her address was “The Influence of Indian Spiritual Thought in England” – and when she reached the somewhat shabby Star Theatre, crammed with an exclusively male audience, she had no idea how she was going to approach it She noticed that in every row’ there were twice as many people as there were numbered seats. The faces were pressed dose together, and they were crowned with the most diverse headgear: turbans of every color, and caps of various forms. Their sandals on the floor, their legs folded beneath them, all these men were staring at her. There w*as not a European in the hall. Four or five giant fans revolved just below the ceiling, and the big open window* let in that indefinable hubbub of India which is made up of guttural cries, creakings, singing voices, shuffling sandals, and the croaking of crow’s; but the heat, none the less, was stifling. Margaret’s platform experience kept her perfectly at ease, and as she appeared before this alien audience – tall, slender, beautiful, her eyes full of an eagerness which matched the character of her guru – her presence at once commanded respect.
Suddenly Swami Vivekananda’s voice was heard: “Sister Nive-dita is another gift of England to India…
As he spoke, and while he continued with his words of introduction, Margaret was reading the same questions in all the eyes turned on her: Who is this woman? What does she know about us? Is she still another missionary?
It was to these dumb interrogations that she replied, quite simply, pronouncing her words clearly so that all could understand her, “You have the ingenuity of six thousand years of conservatism. But yours is the conservation of a people who have, through that long period, been able to preserve the greatest spiritual treasures of the world; and it is for this reason that I have come to India, to serve her with one burning passion for service..
She felt no trace of nervousness in describing how she had discovered India, and she enjoyed explaining how the spiritual thought of the Vedanta could exercise an influence in England. For apostles like Swami Vivekananda opened the hearts and minds and eyes of ignorant or intolerant people, who only knew the India of missionaries, civil servants, soldiers, and sensationseeking travelers. One day, Europe, weighed down by the burden of its riches, might turn toward India, envying its poverty and discovering the quality of its incorruptible spiritual treasure. . . .
To the question, “Who is Nivedita?” she had nothing to reply. ^YTiy? She confessed simply, “I must learn everything like a child; my education is beginning. Help me! When the road is difficult, I shall remember the welcome in your kindly faces….”
Nivedita had spoken on a happy, detached note, carried away by the crowd’s attention, but when she had ended, a poignant emotion gripped her. The contact had been established so completely that she was taken aBackby the applause, suddenly jolted out of the intimacy she had created and thrown Backupon her own solitude, whereas, before, she had felt her personality multiplied by all the eyes fixed upon her.
In his turn Swami Vivekananda had risen to address the crowd on the subject of that Western world which, by virtue of its Greek heritage, pays so much attention to the expression of its civilization and its expansion. If India wished to rise, it would have, like the West, to give expression to its thoughts and culture. By expressing itself it would develop. Let India use the great discoveries of the West which are at the service of all mankind, yes, let it use them for its own good – science and industry were the watchwrords of the men of tomorrow. “But above all,” he went on, “have confidence in yourselves. By doing so you will have faith in God. Infinite faith begets infinite aspiration. If that faith comes to us, it will bring Backour national life to the days of Vyasa and Aijuna – the days when all our sublime doctrines of humanity were preached.”
The ovation which had greeted Nivedita was now transferred to the Swami. But as she came down from the rostrum, a shout wrent up, “Sister Nivedita! Sister Nivedita!” The people crowded round her, and followed her as far as the door.
There she found Swami Vivekananda smiling, delighted at her performance. His aim had been achieved.
The second of the “moral initiations” planned by the Swami took place several days later, when, accompanied by Mrs. Bull and Miss MacLeod, the new Sister Nivedita went to Bagh Bazar to visit Sri Sarada Devi.
Bagh Bazar is a Hindu district in the north of Calcutta, extremely picturesque with its wide-verandaed houses, its narrow streets between high walls, its misshapen lamp brackets holding enormous kerosene lamps. It had that other picturesqueness, too, of a poor and congested quarter that has seen better days. The life of its people overflowed from the houses into the streets, w’ith lines of washing hanging up, with bedsteads and cooking stoves standing about. And, alongside, there were regal old houses, their facades eaten away by the rains, their iron railings and closed ornamental gates giving on inner courtyards and gardens of which nothing could be seen. Around the water faucets, set at the level of the ground, naked children shouted and played, and the goats that were their companions foraged in the muck heaps.
The Swami had been careful to prepare the interview between Sri Sarada Devi and the three foreigners: he knew’ that Nivedita w’ould receive something of a shock when she saw the intimate household of an orthodox Hindu widow’.
He wanted his new’ disciple, above all, to feel the sparkling joy that radiated from Sarada Devi; to absorb it completely, and even to envy her for it, before venturing on any opinion or comparison. This Hindu woman represented the model Hindu wife, the model widow’ed disciple, and for the monks even more, the model of the virgin mother in her perfect purity.
People, now, would be recounting her unique life and would tell how, w’hile retaining the naive and charming soul of a child, she had become for her husband, the saint of Dakshinesvar, the very embodiment of the Shakti, the pow’er of Creativeness. The mystery of her life had begun very early. Sarada was five years old, playing and jumping about the village women as they w’ent down to the pools to draw water, when her father, an austere brahman, decided to marry her to one of the priests who wras in charge of a temple of Kali, far away down the Ganges at Dakshinesvar. The marriage arrangements had been discussed at length by priests and astrologers. All young girls w’ere married in this way and continued to live with their mothers for several years – there was nothing remarkable about that. But Sarada had been selected, designated, marked out by the finger of God, long in advance, as a field is set aside for the service of the temple before the harvest, to receive a chosen seed.
She had grown up in the country as she waited for her married life to begin. Her husband, meanwhile – concerned only with God – had completely forgotten her, although she did not know this. As she passed from childhood to adolescence she gradually went about less in the neighborhood of the village to gather grass for the cows or pluck the ripe cotton in the fields, for she had been taught to live within the courtyard of her house and never even to leave it unaccompanied: taught to work, to love silence, always to cover her face with her sari so that no stranger could look upon her. From her mother she learned everything that was expected of a woman; and with her mother she went every day to the temple of the goddess, in the center ot the village, to make her offering.
Sarada was eighteen years old when the whispered rumor reached her that her husband had gone mad. At Dakshinesvar he had been seen going about like one demented, lost to all sense of time and place, speaking only to pour forth praises of his Divine Mother – Kali, the powerful goddess who stands at the shrine of the temple surrounded by flowers and offerings. And Sarada set out herself to learn the truth about him. She was ill with anxiety, but when she saw her husband her apprehension vanished.
“I am at your service/* he said to her, and paid her solemn homage.
Sarada began to cry. In her husband’s eyes she perceived infinitude, and she felt herself slipping into a state of ecstasy.
“I have come to help you along your way/* she said, overcome with emotion. And this was all she could find to say: this said everything. Her virgin heart had already become that of a nun, ready to help, with all her strength, the husband who had given himself to Kali, his Divine Mother.
For years Sarada tasted the unique joy of serving, of practicing a limitless humility. A strange maternity! With no child of her own to hold in her arms and her heart, she opened the heart of a mother wide to the spiritual children who sought refuge with Sri Ramakrishna, and welcomed them with a love that was ever renewed.
After her husband’s death she accepted all the austere regimen of her position, in accordance with the discipline imposed upon brahman widows. And she was venerated by the disdples of Sri Ramakrishna.
For these disciples her white figure, veiled from head to foot, was the perfect image of impersonality, on which they centered all their desires and from which they drew the inspiration that brought them close to Sri Ramakrishna again. She would spend some time in her native village; then come, ever and again, to Bagh Bazar. A house was taken for her there, and in it she settled down with several women as her companions and with Swami Yogananda to act as doorkeeper. Here she lived an unostentatious life of complete devotion. Here the visit of the three Westerners provided not only an uncommon experience for Sarada Devi, but an excitement for the entire locality.
As the foreigners stepped from their carriage they were at once besieged by crowds of children. The door of Sarada Devi’s house was half-open, and in the shadow of the porch Swami Vivekananda was speaking to the monk in charge. The callers heard a humming, as of bees, and a sound of low smothered laughter. Then the door was pushed open, a square of dazzling white light appeared in the dark house, and all noise ceased. On the floor in the corridor Nivedita noticed several large earthenware vessels filled with water.
She felt very nervous, as did her friends, when they entered the house. They were encumbered with superfluous impedimenta – sunshades, scarfs, handbags – which they did not know where to put There was no furniture anywhere. Swami Yogananda invited them to take off their shoes; then he withdrew, with Swami Vivekananda, while they went upstairs.
As Nivedita went through the open door into the single room there, she saw some ten women sitting on the floor. In the center, and a little in front of the others, Sarada Devi sat on a bamboo mat. She was wrapped in a white sari which also covered her head, but her right shoulder could be seen through light muslin, and her face was uncovered. Her long black hair hung down her back, and her bare feet were reddened as is the custom. She cast a welcoming look of peace upon her visitors, and, as they bowed deeply, she replied by joining her hands and raising them to her forehead.
Another woman came forward, her heels shuffling over the floor, one hand opened and spread out before her as if she were pushing her way. She laid three small embroidered mats carefully before that of Sarada, motioned to the newcomers to sit down, and withdrew. No word was spoken. The silence became heavy and irksome. Nivedita felt herself being stared at from all sides, and did not dare raise her eyes. Her ears were humming, her heart was beating in double-quick time. She heard a woman yawn. On one of the walls, stained by the dampness of summer rain, she saw an enormous lizard crawling.
Suddenly she heard whispering among the women, whose eyes were sparkling with curiosity. Something was going to happen! A woman had brought Sarada Devi a white earthenware plate containing sliced fruits, sweets, and a cup of milk; at once she set before each of the guests a copper tray with the same refreshments. To everyone’s surprise, the hostess beyond all orthodoxy began to eat with her three children from overseas. Her face was all alight. “How beautiful she is!” said Nivedita, aloud, breaking the silence. She was struck by Sarada Devi’s expression of serenity. Sri Ramakrishna’s widow was forty-five years old, and her face was so pure and unsullied that it reflected her soul with the sure gleam of a diamond.
She had smiled, and through the medium of one of the women who knew English she now began an animated conversation. Sri Ma, as the disciples called her (“Holy Mother” is probably the best translation), wanted to know everything about her Christian daughters. “How is the Lord worshiped in your houses?” she asked. “What homage is He paid?” And then, to each of them, “Are your parents still alive?” While living the life of a complete recluse, Sarada Devi guessed at the diversity of the outside world and rejoiced in it: the Lord manifests Himself in so many different ways!
The nervousness had vanished, the constraint -was gone. The atmosphere was so friendly that Nivedita thought, “Why isn’t Swami Vivekananda here to share this pure happiness?” She looked about for him, thinking that he might be just outside the door. Not seeing him, she asked for him. Her question seemed to amuse the women, and at the same time to cause embarrassment. Confused, she made a movement as if she herself would get up and call him. Then, suddenly, hurried steps were heard in the corridor, on the stairs; and all eyes turned to the door.
But before Swami Vivekananda entered the room, Nivedita understood the error she had committed in making her request. With a sound as of softly beating wings, the saris fell Backupon the women’s faces. Where there had been expressiveness, interest, individuality, every countenance showed now only its white, amorphous, impenetrable and meaningless shape.
Nivedita saw the Swami touch the threshold with his forehead, then prostrate himself before Sarada Devi. He remained motionless in his adoration, his face resdng on the floor, until sLr ¦ d out and touched his head. Then he got up, motioned to the three Western visitors to take leave of their hostess, and, without a word, left the room. As soon as he had gone Sarada Devi raised her veil. She blessed each of her three callers. Then she looked at Nivedita for a long moment and said,
“My daughter, I am glad you came.”
This phrase of welcome, of acceptance, became the talk of the neighborhood. “Do you know,” the women of Bagh Bazar said, over and over to one another as they bathed in the Ganges, “she called her ‘my daughter,’ just like the rest of us!”
But the most striking evidence of the success of their visit – the thing that showed the three foreigners how much concern Sri Ma felt for them – was that Gopaler Ma,. the most orthodox of all the women in her group, went with them in their carriage all the wray to Belur. Gopaler Ma was a very old woman who had been blessed by Sri Ramakrishna after many years of solitary austerity. As she could not speak English, she expressed the warmth of her sympathy by holding her new friend’s hands, and stroking them. She loved them all equally, but she felt a special bond with Nivedita, who was to enter the life of the renunciation. With her, she told her beads that evening by the side of the Ganges.