The Dedicated – 25. Sannyasa

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25. Sannyasa

In New York friends were waiting at the dock to escort her to Ridgely Manor, the Hudson River home ot Miss MacLeod’s older sister, Mrs. Leggett, where Swami Vivekananda and Mrs. Bull were already guests. The house was large and comfortable, there were spacious grounds where it was always possible to find individual privacy. Mrs. Bull and her daughter Olea were installed in a small lodge at some distance from the main house. Mrs. Leggett, whom her friends called “Lady Betty,” made a practice of entertaining artists, writers and other creative personalities in house parties to which she and her three daughters knew how to impart an atmosphere of hospitality at once stimulating and restful. This autumn she was happy to have Swami Vivekananda, Mrs. Bull, and Vivedita all under her roof together, as well as Christine Greenstidel and a few personal friends of her own.

During his first days there, the Swami had rested. He was suffering from chronic diabetes, the symptoms of which had already appeared when he was a student. Insulin had not yet been discovered. Throughout his stay at Ridgely Manor he was able only intermittently to join the coterie which grouped itself around him, but during his good moments he gave of himself unstintingly, explaining the divine life and expressing ideas that sprang from the depths of his heart At these times his hostess allowed nothing to disturb the atmosphere of calm which she created around him. Plans would be canceled, even the hours of meals would be changed. Every minute was precious, for sometimes the Swami would be seized with a fit of coughing and would be obliged to leave abruptly. Sometimes, too, his eyes would be fixed in a stare, and his words would be spoken with difficulty. Then, transported by his inner vision, he would pass the rest of the day in silence, indifferent to everything that went on about him.

But he was watching Nivedita closely.

For her, this was the pause before the battle: a time given to her, she knew, for the unloosing of what was still bound in her, for whatever orderly adjustment she might need before she went forth alone to deliver her guru’s message. And the days were flying. A vast correspondence had sprung up between Ridgley Manor and the intellectual circles in Boston and Chicago which had received Swami Vivekananda favorably. There was evident curiosity in regard to herself, a wish to hear the experience of a Western woman living an orthodox Hindu life in India.

For the Swami, the stage she was going through was important in his work.

“Do you think, Margot, that you can collect the money you want, in the West?” he had asked her on the ship.

“I don’t think, Swami: I know,” she had answered.

“I hope so. There were two things I wanted to see before my death. One is done, and this is the rest.”

He gave her no help, now, in any of her preparations. He was biding his time. But he wept when Nivedita came to him and said calmly, “O Lord, I want to drink at the fountain of peace. What I shall find there I don’t know, but I am confident. The time has come!”

“Peace be with you,” he said to her, simply. “My peace is in you. Bring it to fruition.”

That same evening – September 21st, 1899 – as Nivedita was returning from a drive with Miss MacLeod, he handed her a paper, on which was written: Such is this peace which I give you, and in which I have lived this happy day. Receive my blessing!

Behold, it comes in might,

The power that is not power,

The light that is in darkness,

The shade in dazzling light

It is joy that never spoke And grief unfelt profound,

Immortal life un-lived Eternal death un-moumed.

It is not joy nor sorrow But that which is between;

It is not night nor morrow,

But that which joins them in.

It is sweet rest in music And pause in sacred art,

The silence between speaking Between the fits of passion:

It is the calm of the heart.

It is beauty never loved,

And love that stands alone;

It is song that lives unsung And knowledge never known.

It is death between two lives,

And lull between two streams:

The void whence rose creation And that where it returns.

To it the tear-drop goes To spread the smiling form;

It is the goal of life,

And peace, its only home.

Throughout the month that followed, the Swami’s teaching was entirely directed toward Nivedita, who had become the

pivot of his thought Even during the evening, when all the guests at Ridgely Manor assembled around the hearth in the drawing room, her friends gave way to her; and although the Swami – sitting Indian fashion on a cushion in the light ot the fire – replied willingly to all questions, he always touched upon the basis of what was in Nivedita’s mind. One evening he said: “You see, there is one thing called love, and there is another thing called union. And union is greater than love. So no man loves that thing in which his life has been spent, in which he has really accomplished something. I do not love religion. I have become identified with it; it is my life. That which we love is not yet ourself… . This is the difference between chakti [the way of devotion] and jnana [the way of discrimination], and this is why jnana is greater than chakti.”

As she listened to her guru Nivedita said to herself, “I am free power, without will or desire.” But she was seized at the same time by a tremor of fear. “Shall I have the strength to go forward alone?” her heart added.

Swami Vivekananda was now communicating this strength to her, as she made clear – detailing every incident – in the letters she wrote to Miss MacLeod, who had been summoned to the deathbed of her brother in California.

This morning when I came downstairs he paced up and down for an hour-and-a-half, like a caged lion, warning me against politeness, against this “lovely” and “beautiful,” against the continual feeling of the external. “Realize yourself without feeling he says, “and, when you have known that, you can fall upon the world like a bolt from the blue. I have no faith in those who ask, ‘Will any listen to my preaching?’ Never yet has the world been able to refuse to hear the preaching of him who had anything to say. Stand up in your own might. Can you do that? Can you? If not, then come away to the Himalayas, and learn.” Then he broke into Shankarachary’s sixteen verses on Renunciation, ending always with a humming refrain: “Therefore, you fool, go and worship the Lord!” And sometimes he would make it, “Therefore, Margot, you fool, go and worship the Lord!”

Her letters, in this autumn of 1899, continued:

To get rid of all those petty relations of society and home, to hold the soul firm against the perpetual appeals of sense, to realize that the rapture of autumn trees is as truly sense-enjoyment as a comfortable bed or a table-dainty, to hate the silly praise and blame of people – these things were the ideals to hold up.

As he warned her against subtle weakenings of the spirit, both from outside and within – against even the luxury of meditation – Nivedita watched Swami Vivekananda going through both physical and spiritual suffering. The news of poverty-stricken Belur and of the quarrels of the London disciples had both taken their toll.

“Imagine God, even, against him, and conceive the joy of standing by him then,” she wrote in a letter. And she was even more explicit about her own feeling in another letter written at about the same time:

I came to India with little or no dependence on the personal side of Swami. In that awful time at Almora, when I thought he had put me out of his life contemptuously, it still made no difference to the essentials. Now he is the whole living, for good or for evil; instead of growing less, I have grown infinitely more personal in my love. I am not sure but his least whim is worth the whole, and now when one turns to him in thought the heart grows free. Blessed be God for making it possible to love like this!

A little later, however – in mid-October – Nivedita wrote from die cottage in the garden where she had taken up her quarters:

After this letter, it will be a long time before you will get more Swami from me. You see, I have to finish Kali the Mother * and there are other things I have to do – and I have always longed to try a retreat anyway, and my great obstacle was the Master. So I manoeuvred between him and Dhiramata that it should be announced in public that I was to go into retreat for fifteen days.”

A book of 114 pages, published in London in 1900.

Swami Vivekananda had approved of this decision on Nivedita’s part and had encouraged her action. On the last evening before her “retreat” the guests had a reading from Schopenhauer – on Women – and then walked under the stars to the lodge. Nivedita and the Swami walked together.

I whispered to him that I couldn’t bear even the sound of our feet in the dead hours at night It was wonderful moonlinght, and we walked up the avenue in silence [she wrote]. A sound would have been desecration. Then he said, “When a tiger in India is on the trail of prey at night, it its paw or tail makes the least sound in passing, it bites it till the blood comes. It always goes wind with the wind.” As they came to a crossing of paths from which a wide view opened out, the Swami stopped and smiled tenderly upon his disciple.

“It is here that your retreat must begin,” he said. “Go in peace.” And he quoted the Katha Upanishad:When desire is all gonej and all chords of the heart are broken, then man attains immortality”

Nivedita found these days of silence an extremely hard test. She tried to lose herself in her work – several short essays illustrating the aspect from which she worshiped her Divine Mother and called Her to her – but when she put this in writing, the words were heavy, they rang false, their real sense was masked. Why did her Divine Mother leave her in this distress? she cried. Ideas rose and fell within her like notes of an elusive melody, and when she tried to seize them they faded into nothingness. “Why is my peace dead?” she cried again. Then in reply to her demand she discovered the words of comfort which she set down in Kali the Mother: “Think it was for My pleasure thou earnest forth into the world, and for that again, when night falls and My desire is accomplished, I shall withdraw thee to My rest.. .. Remember that I who cry have shown also the way to answer.” She wrote to a friend: “I am simply stranded over my essay on the Saints. Tonight I have written to the end of Ramprasad, and I want to finish that and get into Sri Ramakrishna, and I cannot I wrote some pages of rubbish and tore it up, and then

took in despair to copying out of the second chapter of the Gita: ‘Who abandons all desires, and lives and acts free from longing, who has no “I” or “mine,” who has extinguished his individual ego in the One and lives in that Unity – he attains to the great peace/ “

These words, which she knew by heart, blazed in the middle of a page. As she wrote them, she realized her mistake: she was still praying in her heart instead of finding the strength to bring that heart as an offering to Her who knows all things. Two days passed; and then, overcome with mental exhaustion, she wrote down her dialogue with her Divine Mother:

“Motherl Far away, one whom I love is very sad today. His heart calls to mine for help, but though I tell him how I love him I leave him still uncheered. How is it?”

“Cease, my child, from inordinate affection. Give Me your heart, and let Me govern it alone. Be the witness of earth’s joys and sorrows, sharing them not. Thus only can you keep yourself from entanglement, and attain peace.” “But peace for myself, dear Mother, why should I seek? Give him that inner peace. Let me win it for him, if Thou wilt be kind! But I cannot will to fail him in his need and loneliness, even to gain Thy blessing!”

“Ah! Foolish one! Every thought of love that you send out to answer his becomes a fetter of iron to hold him in life’s anguish. Hide yourself in My heart, my child. . . . Only thus can you satisfy him. Only by withdrawing yourself can you bring him peace.”

“Mother, I yield! Take me, I pray thee, into thine own heart. Let me look not back. If Thou wilt call me I shall find my way there, surely, though my eyes now are blind with tears. . . .”

“Silly, silly child! Like a helpless bird, you beat your wings of littleness against My grace! For already the cloud that seemed so black is passing. The hearts of two beat high, for the conquest bom of renunciation.”*

Very late on the evening of the fifth day of her retreat,

* From Kali the Mother; “Intercession.”

Swami Vivekananda knocked at Nivedita’s door. Guessing what she had been going through, he came in and talked to her of the worship of Kali and of Sri Ramakrishna’s sense of the goddess’s presence and power. He blessed her, and, on leaving, gave her a solemn warning:

“The Guru of gurus is Shiva; now you know. Beneath the tree of Wisdom, He teaches, destroying ignorance. One must offer to Him all one’s actions, else even merit would become a bondage and create karma…. How much greater to give one’s youth! Those who come to it old attain their own salvation, but they cannot be gurus for others. Happy is he who gives his life in the flower of his youth; he is a true guru.”

Two days later the Swami put an end to Nivedita’s retreat.

“May the peace which has come upon you be your glory,” he said to her. “The moment for action now lies before you. The Mother in Her manifestation of Energy will always sustain you. Evoke Her, summon Her. Durga, Durgal* She will fight for you with unconquerable weapons, and will vanquish the demons. She will give you the necessary energy.”

One by one the guests were leaving Ridgely Manor in these autumn days. And this was as well, because the Swami was being lashed by a wave of intense mysticism like a cliff in a raging sea. Sometimes he gave way to the most violent despair at the thought that all his personal efforts had been reduced to ashes. He was obsessed by a single idea – to give all he still possessed while there was time. India was calling. How could he resist her voice? “Where am I now?” he kept repeating. “Why am I still here? And so to Thee, Ramakrishna, I betake myself. For at Thy feet alone is the refuge of man. . . . This body is going away, it shall go with hard austerities. I will say ten thousand Orrt a day and will fast alone by the Ganges in the Himalayas, saying, ‘Hara, Hara, the Freed One’ I will change my name, and this time none shall know. I will take the initiation of sannyasa over again, and I will never come Backto anyone again. . . . How I curse the day that brought me celebrity!”

. “Durga” is one of the names of the Hindu Divine Mother.

His face, haggard with illness, betrayed the awful thought that he had lost his power of meditation. “I have given everything to you all, mlecchas,” he said one day. “Now I am nothing myself.” He became more and more impatient One morning after breakfast he said to Nivedita, before everybody:

“How much longer are you going to hang on here? When are you going to decide to leave and begin your work?”

Taken aBackas she was by this unexpected attack, she replied calmly: “I am here under your express instructions. I am quite ready to leave.”

Olea Bull, who was just going out of the room, turned around suddenly.

“I’m leaving Ridgely Manor the day after tomorrow, for Chicago,” she said to Nivedita. “Will you come with me?”

Nivedita accepted this invitation at once, and the Swami was delighted.

“Ah, if I had your health and strength I would conquer the world!” he cried. “Austerities are not for you. Work, fight, always and in every circumstance feel yourself free. I give you every liberty. You are to search deep into your inspiration and then trust nothing else. Remember you are only the servant of the Divine Mother. And if She sends you nothing, be thankful that She leaves you so free. I wish She would leave me so!”

It was then decided that Swami Vivekananda should leave for New York on the same day, with Mrs. Bull. The only thing still to do was pack.

“Nivedita, will you do it for me?” he asked, timidly. “I’ve really no idea how to go about it” She agreed, and while she was busy sorting out papers and books he set aside several of the silk scarves with which he draped his turbans, to give to his hostess’s daughters. Then he got out two huge pieces of cotton material, the color of the ocher yellow robes, of the sort he wore in India.

He motioned to Nivedita to stop her work, and asked where Mrs. Bull was.

“In my room, probably, writing letters,” she answered.

“Come, then,” he said.

He hurried into the room ahead of Nivedita and, when she had entered, closed the door behind her. The two women looked at each other in amazement. Serenely radiant, the Swami stretched out his arms.

“My children, I have come, I have come,” he said.

Nivedita, who had no suspicion of what was going to happen, described the scene later in a letter to Miss MacLeod:

First he shut the door, then he arranged the cloth as a skirt and chuddar [a shawl] round Dhiramata’s waist, then he called her a sannyasini. Then, putting one hand on her head, and on mine, he said, “1 give you all that Rama-krishna Paramahamsa gave to me. What came to us from a woman I give to you two women. Do what you can with it. I cannot trust myself. I do not know what I might do tomorrow, and ruin the work. Women’s hands will be the best anyway to hold what came from a woman, from Mother. Who and what She is, I do not know. I have never seen Her, but Ramakrishna Paramahamsa saw Her and touched Her like this.” And Swami touched my sleeve. “She may be a great disembodied spirit for all I know. Anyway, I cast the load on you. I am going away to be at peace. I felt nearly mad this morning, and I was thinking and thinking what I could do when I went to my room to sleep before lunch. And then I thought of this and was so glad. It is like a release. I have borne it all this time and now I have given it up. . „

Were these exactly the words he used? I think they were. It seems to me that it must have been about 3 o’clock or shortly after, for I think it was daylight still. . . . We both thought of you at that moment, darling. And so, Yum, happened “the event of my life,” the great turning-point, and the dear Saint Sarah’s.

According to the rules now in force at the monastery of Belur, this does not constitute formal ordination. But Swami Vivekananda had already given similar initiation in the United States to another woman, the Swami Abhayananda, and to two men, the Swami Kripananda and Yogananda, and there are other instances of nonformal initiation among the early monks of Belur Math. When Nivedita returned to India two years later, in hfovember, 1901, she discovered that her initiation to sannyasa was being discussed, and she decided to keep to her title of Brahmacahrini. Several times, however, she spoke in public in the ocher-yellow robe of the monks, and she wore it in her own house during the latter part of her life.

At the present moment, however, all such questions of “formal” and “nonformal” were far away. Prostrate before her guru, Nivedita felt, during this ordination, an all-pervading, all-absorbing power and strength. She no longer possessed body, heart, reason, intelligence. The monk’s hand on her head was warm, heavy, and powerful. She was receiving the supreme gift in full knowledge of its significance. And a vision passed before her eyes, of the souls free and the souls bound, the boats moored to the shore and the boats speeding off in the sunshine, the life tied to interest and circumstance and the life at liberty to be offered to the greatest. … It seemed so true, so deeply inborn. She almost asked, “Can it be that I am free, that I have been free all along, only I didn’t know it, that I realize the joy of it like this?”

Taking leave of his two favored disciples before they all left Ridgely Manor, Swami Vivekananda walked beside them in the park, as happy and carefree as a child. “I have become Shuka again!” he said. “That is the name Sri Ramakrishna gave me in the good old times, before dedicating me to Kali. Shuka was an enfant terrible who laughed at the world. He adored his Divine Mother. Now, like him, I am playing in the Mother’s garden. . .

Nivedita watched him with a tenderness shot through with grief.

I cannot conceal the thought from myself [she wrote to Miss MacLeod] that as his Master lived one year and a half after giving his Power to him, so he has but a short time to live. Life has been torture to him, and I would not ask him to endure it longer, merely for our pleasure. But, oh, Yum, Yum, if your prayers have any weight with the Eternal, see to it that his time becomes one of relaxation and triumph. If I should die a thousand deaths hereafter, in a thousand flaming hells, I implore, no, I demand, of the Supreme that I be allowed to win and lay some laurels at his feet while he is yet with us. If God have indeed a Mother’s heart, surely we cannot be refused this boon! For you will pray for it too, won’t you? As Saint Sarah does, I know. It is a great thing to be the one privileged to endure the brunt of the battle, but it is all of us together, really, who are doing it; it is no one person. Each of us in each place, for all the others, is serving him.

A friend of Mrs. Leggett’s tried to persuade the Swami to give her one more interview on the morning of his departure, but he shrugged his shoulders and snatched himself away. “I have no message,” he said. “I used to think I had, but now 1 know I have nothing for the world. Only for myself. I must break this dream.”

The two groups of travelers separated at the railroad station. Up to the last minute Swamiji kept showing concern for the details of Nivedita’s journey. “Have you forgotten anything? Something to read, a blanket, a hot drink? What else can I do for you?” he asked. When the final goodbyes were being spoken he clasped his hands together. “Always when you are beginning anything or going anywhere, say Durga, Durga, Margot. That protects from all dangers,” he said.

There was something deeply personal, immeasurably moving, in this last bit of advice. It seemed to hold all the love of a father for his daughter. The guru, the stem teacher, had completely disappeared.


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