6. The Disciple
Swami Vivekananda’s sudden extraordinary hold over Margaret Noble had confronted her with a fait accompli. She had felt bound to declare herself his disciple. Nothing had compelled her to do so, except perhaps her own will power, for she never stopped halfway.
Swami Vivekanada saw her come to see him – in silence. At that moment, his benevolent smile created an indissoluble bond between them. She came forward bravely, relying merely on her intelligence and force of character, but without relinquishing any part of her personality. He refrained from calling her “my disciple,” for the moment had not yet come for that, but greeted her already as the woman she was to become. He saw her beyond the frontiers of her ego, rich with a richness unknown to herself, and perceived the astonishing dynamism of her character and her innate faith in the unknowable Absolute. She was just the woman he needed to do his work in India. But could he rightly be proud of this fruit which had grown up of its own accord, and which was now developing within itself the seed from which he was to profit?
Swami Vivekananda’s departure for America, in November, 1895, gave Margaret the unexpected opportunity, in spite of her regret at losing the Swami, of freeing herself from his immediate influence and taking stock of her position. She drew up a systematic plan of work and began to study the Swami’s philosophical ideas along the lines he had suggested. She spent a fascinating winter, giving up all her secondary interests in order to have time to read. She waited impatiently for the spring which would bring him back, overjoyed at the prospect of showing him what she had achieved.
The prodigious religious erudition of Vivekananda had conquered her completely. Ten years later, in My Master as l Saw Him, she was to write: “I studied his teaching sufficiently to become convinced of its coherence, but never, till I had experiences that authenticated them, did I inwardly cast in my lot with the final justification of the things he had come to say.”
On her study table, between her history and science books, Margaret had opened the Gita next to the Bible, a life of Buddha next to a life of Christ, and the main Upanishads, the books of Indian wisdom of which Mr. Sturdy had lent her the best existing translations. The question has often been raised, whether Margaret Noble was familiar with Indian philosophy before meeting Swami Vivekananda. Eight years previously, she had written an article (published in 1887) entitled “The Christ Child,” and signed “Nealus,” in which she said: “The happiness of Christ, we laugh at the words. Yet let us bethink ourselves. Is not this the very secret we learn from Him, how to know the crown of thorns, the crown of glory, the unutterable fullness of beatitude in the hungering and thirsting after righteousness? It is impossible, as we watch the sweet story grow, to help thinking of the Old Indian Buddha, who was tempted and tried, yet became the blessed, so many centuries before. We cannot repress the thought of Socrates, as we look at this life’s stem loyalty to truth with its winning lowliness and grace. Undoubtedly they are there, Buddha and Socrates, but whether their memories fall athwart the cradle of the Christ* or whether they agree as brethren sprung from the common soul of human genius, who can tell?”
Now, in any case, she plunged into these works like a theological student, assimilating them one by one and writing a series of essays for her own benefit, in order to clarify her individual objections. She exercised considerable caution in her incursions into the liberalism o£ the ancient religions of the world – Hinduism and Buddhism – which hewed out a wide path beyond the Jewish concept of redemption (so exclusive in its dogmas), and outdistanced the security of Christianity. Alone at her work, she would sometimes lose heart and feel giddy at the absence of any fixed background. But she recalled the words of the Swami: “Never feel yourself forsaken. Do you know how God dwells in man? He hides Himself like a Hindu lady of noble birth behind a lattice curtain. He is always there, like that lady who sees everything, though no one suspects her presence. . . “ With this real Presence in her, could she admit defeat, even if she still did not know how to perceive It and serve It?
When too many contradictory questions assailed her, she pictured herself as one of those young Calcutta students among whom Swami Vivekananda had often sat at Sri Ramakrishna’s feet Eager for discussion, they used to lay their thoughts before the saint, who welcomed them with a kindly smile and let them speak. But soon he would grow weary of listening, and would withdraw some distance to the banks of the Ganges, from whence he – who knew all things – would silently give them his blessing. Margaret silenced her thoughts after repeating with great humility the injunction, “Pray in any form, for the Lord knows even the footfall of an ant. . . .”
Gradually, however, she felt new sources of power and harmony springing up within her, to impregnate her words and actions. She became aware of her change of attitude, encouraged as she was in her upward march by the conviction that she was passing from an inferior to a superior truth which kept on unfolding itself. The many and varied stages of her journey no longer frightened her – her backslidings, her wrong turnings, her sudden halts, her stumblings. They all played their part in the divine plan, without dimming the brilliance of the beacon light toward which she moved.
These changes within herself found reflection also in her political activity. She discovered a new expression of man’s capacity when he thrusts aside sin and weakness to find again, through a greater or lesser manifestation, the original purity of his soul. She welcomed with open arms those ideas of infinite power. A deep joy radiated from her which expressed itself most clearly in her relations with the Irish groups she frequented. When she spoke from the platform, she imagined the Swami as being in the front row of her audience. Often she paraphrased the ideas she had derived from the Swami’s teaching, and transmitted them with all the fervor with which they had been received: “In the political struggle man must grow continually. . . . He has duties toward his wife, his children, his parents. He has others toward his village, his town, his district, and finally his country. But all these selfish interests for which he strives so hard are transcended when he becomes a citizen of humanity as a whole, when he sees God Himself in each man he serves. Such a man can move worlds, when his tiny ego is dead and God has taken its place.”
At this time, too, Margaret became involved in a general controversy which centered in her friend Ronald M’Neill’s violent opposition to Home Rule. His journalistic attacks did not spare her; and she, in her turn, became a spokesman m her own group and made use of all the connections she had formed in the Sesame Club, many of whose members were in the House of Commons.
It was at this moment – April, 1896 – that Swami Vivekananda returned to London. He found Margaret completely transformed: an intrepid woman of full stature, awaiting the opportunity of announcing to him, “Master, I am ready to make a new effort!”
This did not mean, however, that she was ready to give up her independence of thought. Putting into practice, as far as possible, several of the precepts she had learned, she had prepared her line of defense and was ready to meet the Swami with a series of objections by which she hoped this independence would be preserved. Nothing could have given him greater satisfaction. He knew by personal experience the road along which Margaret was progressing. Had he not himself, over a long period of years, struggled against Sri Ramakrishna, before surrendering to him? Skeptical and arrogant, had he not sought to defeat the saint’s arguments? “Lord,” he had asked him one day, “have you really seen God?” Emerging from his serene ecstasy, Sri Ramakrishna had replied, “Yes, my son, I have seen God. I see Him just as I see you before me. Only I see Him much more intensely. And I can make you see him too.”
This burning question which had tortured the Swami now occupied Margaret But for the moment it was only her intellectual curiosity which sought the Truth, not in mysticism but as a cold penetrating light, a unity which endrded every divine manifestation, a power emanating from Nature and continually shining forth. Swami Vivekananda knew that one day this intellectual attitude would be laid aside, and that Margaret, stripped of her inhibitions and in a spirit of renunciation, would learn to know God Himself in His blessedness. While awaiting this fulfillment he was content to remain for her the personified Truth, on the human plane; the guide through whom she was feeling her way toward the unfailing light.
She followed his teaching assiduously. Four times a wed: the Swami gathered his followers together and delivered a course of lectures on the Vedandc philosophy with the same intensity as if he had been in India. The intellectual needs of certain of his hearers, and their aggressive rationalism, had led him to point out to them – among the great traditional paths toward liberation – that of knowledge, the yoga of jnana. “The salvation of Europe depends on a rationalistic religion,” he told them one day, anticipating their objections. “The materialist is right. There is but One. Only he calls that One matter, and I call it God. That is the only difference.” He knew how to capture the most abstract ideas, describe the relation between the soul and God, its freedom, its aspirations, its unity with the creative Principle, and then he could suddenly transform this world of the spirit into the world of every day, giving to the Vedanta he preached an immediate aim, a practical and feasible conception of the relations between the particular and the universal.
Friday was the day set apart for questions. Margaret would submit the Swami each time to a veritable cross-examination which the rest of the audience followed with growing interest. Her clear voice invariably began the bombardment: “Excuse me, Swamiji, but you said that – ” and a passionate discussion ensued. All eyes turned automatically toward the second row, away to the right, where Margaret sat She was always next to an American woman slightly older than herself with whom she had become acquainted. Her name was Josephine MacLeod. Rich, independent, free both in her movements and in her outlook, she had known the Swami for several years and had accompanied him in his journey to England. She had taken a fancy to Margaret and often took her Backto Wimbledon in a cab so that they might continue discussing the subjects which interested them. It was the beginning of an intimate friendship which was to last all their lives.
Certainly, everything was not easy in the Swami’s teaching! Margaret was to try to express some of its processes later: “At first the goal is far off, outside Nature. . . . This has to be brought near, yet without being degraded or made to degenerate, until, when it has come closer and closer, the God of Heaven becomes the God in Nature, till the God in Nature becomes the God within this temple of the body and the God dwelling in the temple itself becomes the soul of the man. Thus it reaches the last words it can teach, He whom the sages have sought in all places is in our hearts. So’ham, so’ham, I am He, I am He.”
One of the greatest obstacles in Margaret’s ascent was the assimilation of the philosophical theory of Maya, in which Swami Vivekananda had been instructing his followers for several weeks. She almost made herself ill over it, until finally she succeeded in formulating it in words familiar to herself: “By Maya is thus meant that shimmering, elusive, half-real, half-unreal complexity, m which there is no rest, no satisfaction, no ultimate certainty, of which we become aware through the senses, and through the mind as dependent on the senses. At the same time, ‘and that by which all this is pervaded, know That to be the Lord Himself/ In those two conceptions placed side by side is contained all the Hindu theology/*
In this philosophy Margaret perceived all the efforts, mutually subordinated, that she had made up to that time, all the developments she had passed through in her religious experience. A new light shone upon her life, revealing to her all its difficulties and unhoped-for openings. Apart from any philosophical enlightenment, she now felt the need of discussing with the Swami the extremely personal problems which until now she had never touched upon with him. She confided them to him simply, not expecting him to solve her difficulties but merely to teach her to consider them unselfishly and in no false spirit of “rights” or of possession. It was the first effort she had made to break out of the circle her logic had built around her and get nearer to the pure experience of her soul. Without her suspecting it, Swami Vivekananda had provided her with the means of making rapid progress, and of leaving behind her those pools of darkness in which she had been engulfed.
Another step which she now took was to speak to him of her activities. Here Margaret felt a deep response from the Swami, who was a bom social reformer, but whose sensibility was such that he had never been able to adjust his love of his country to his sorrow over the suffering of its masses. In his family circle he had once known poverty and hunger, in the same way as Margaret, who had herself bravely surmounted these obstacles before approaching the more acute problems of the people. When she spoke to him of Wrexham and her life among the miners – experiences about which the Swami was eager to learn – he interpreted that social phase of her life in spiritual terms, on the assumption that the value of the act is just as important in all its details as the result obtained: “The means should be loved and served as if it were the end itself/’
Margaret still often missed the point of these philosophical tenets on which Swami Vivekananda was planning his future work in India. Just as he had studied the underlying purpose of his race, and the means of encouraging its growth from within, so now he attached a value to everything he saw in England. It was in this direction that he guided his new disciple, stimulating her to see her country with a new set of values which would enlarge her vision. In fact, each of them needed the other: the Master needed the disciple he was preparing, and the disdple needed the master in order that all her possibilities might be harmonized.
Their shared enthusiasm for history led them to delve into the great heroic periods of the past, so as to compare them and to draw from them new sources of creative power. Margaret spoke of “nationalism” – she studied Manzoni every week with Octavius Beatty – while Swami Vivekananda spoke of the education of the masses, of the means of “making men.” The whole of that India he had seen in his pilgrimages, with all its poverty and degradation over which he had wept, was compressed in that appeal of his, “Study your Motherland!” He had had to come to England and live among that people which he had despised for so long, in order to recognize that the English possessed sterling qualities. “They have found the secret of obedience without servility and combine the greatest possible freedom with respect for law.”
Margaret took Swami Vivekananda to the political meetings in which she participated and whose discussions she directed. He was struck by her determination and listened attentively. He felt the purity of her intentions. But was she fully aware of the disinterested value of her mission? “The true glory,” he told her, “is reserved not for the man who can throw a bomb but for him who can stand up and say, ‘I possess nothing but God.’ The man or the woman who can speak with such assertion will be carried forward by a mighty impulse and will lead the country toward a higher ideal by bringing out its most sacred qualities.” He counseled prudence and moderation, advised her to reflect longer on any action before giving it a definite fonn, with the firm intention of protecting her from personal harm. Margaret realized that he was speaking from experience, of himself, Narendranath Dutta, during his boisterous student days, when, between lectures at the university, he had taught in a school in the Calcutta suburbs and had gathered together, in the courtyard of his house, the young men of the district and had spoken to them of God until, overcome with emotion, they sang sacred hymns until late into the night. He had used all the materials with which she was now working. He could direct her in every circumstance.
When Margaret showed him her school, he wept with joy. Margaret was embarrassed; she spoke warmly of her aims and efforts. “I am still seeking my method,” she confessed. “Every day I discover new elements. These children are free, but several of them are slow to develop because I do not know how to neutralize, quickly enough, the complexes which impede them. The child, in itself, is an entire science. .. . Each has a right to complete self-expression. That is the essential condition of development which I offer them . . .”
“Ah, my poor, poor children of India who are abandoned to the blackest ignorance,” murmured Swami Vivekananda. “Their lot is so lamentable that they imagine they are bom to be op pressed by all those who have money. They have completely lost their individuality. Can you imagine their misery? Even if we could give them free education in every village, the poor children would be forced to work in the fields to earn their living rather than attend schooll We have no money and we cannot educate them. The problem seems hopeless, but I am searching for a solution. If the mountain will not come to Mohammed, Mohammed must go to the mountain. If the poor cannot come to school, the school must go to them, to the plough, to the factory, everywhere…
“Swamiji . .
Margaret spoke, looked at him, hesitated, stopped. She was silent for a while, and color rose to her cheeks. The first step was difficult, but it had to be taken; and now, when the Swami’s appeal had overwhelmed’ her, was the time to take it. She recognized those great waves of enthusiasm which swept over him, which were so healthy and beneficial for all the people who worked with him yet which were constantly in conflict with his changing moods and his lack of organizing ability. Already, brief and indeed almost formal as their association had been, she had
been helpful to him, had extricated him from difficult situations. How much more helpful she could be in an association that was closer and more personal, that would be permanent! She knew how to prepare his work for him. She could assist, him in a thousand ways. And he knew her very well, too.
She had told him of her personal problems, her dreams and disappointments. Her own life had been shattered. Twice love had come to her, with its beauty and promise, and had gone. She was entirely free now: free to become Swami Vivekananda’s right hand, to serve his cause, to unite her life with his.
She had seen several of her school friends marry missionaries, and set out with them to share hard and unremittingly exacting work in Asia or Africa; surely that was right, and natural: like this.
The words came to her after a pause:
“If God wills it, I will come and work with you. Let us unite our efforts. . . ‘
There was a long silence before the Swrami answered. He understood perfectly the spirit of genuine abnegation that lay behind Margaret’s proposal, and he knew that on her lips the proposal was in its rightful place. She had not the slightest suspicion that he had taken monastic vows. He bowed his head, and when he spoke again it was only a few words:
“I am a monk’
No further personal word was spoken. What counted for them both – for Margaret Noble as for the Swami Vivekananda – was the service of God through the service of the poor; she, too, wished to love God, to do His work, to sacrifice herself to Him. There was another pause, and then the Swami went on talking, quietly:
“You do not realize what would await you out there. Like the Son of Man who had no stone on which to lay His head, so the sannyasi, the wandering monk, lives with no roof over him, always on the move under the torrid sun. But a day will come, I believe, when they will go in groups into the villages, and when evening falls and the peasants return from their long labors in the fields, they will sit among them and speak to them. They will bring them not only religion, but also education in the Western sense. They will speak to them of India; with the help of magic lanterns they will instruct them in astronomy and history; they will show them how other people live. They will show them maps of the world, and atlases. We shall impart ideas of morality to the people, and the hope of self-development. There our mission ends. It is for them, themselves, to do the rest.”
In the summer, the Swami spent three months in Europe with a few of his disciples; and Margaret, in London, thought a great deal about this conversation. When he returned in October, it was with the promise of several dedicated followers to go to work with him in India. Captain and Mrs. Sevier, who had been in Switzerland with him, were the first to decide to go: in the high Alps they had felt and shared his vision of a monastery in the Kumaon mountains in the Himalayas, where disciples from both East and West would work and meditate together in the bonds of a common discipline. Henrietta Muller was one of them. All the little group placed their lives at the disposal of their guru; and Margaret was tempted to do the same.
But she felt now that she could not see so far into the future, and she was entirely absorbed in the Swami’s immediate work, feeling that every minute’s contact with his mind and spirit was part of her education. She had become his private secretary. She watched him undertake a score of tasks at the same time and yet keep track of them all. She watched him pouring out waves of spirituality, arousing currents of irresistible sympathy for India. Besides his lectures, courses of study, and meetings, he was preparing a large-scale study of the three aspects of the Vedandc philosophy, and was finishing his masterly book on Raja-Yoga, the first edition of which sold out in less than a month. Energetic and tireless, he allowed nothing to interrupt his work. Exacting and meticulous in his relations with all his fellow workers, he worshiped the memory of his master, Sri Ramakrishna, with passionate humility. “All that I shall ever accomplish is but dust before his glory,” he said. “In him is the source of a new life, for all humanity.”
Swami Vivekananda won brilliant success everywhere; he fought like a real kshatriya – warrior – to which caste he belonged. One word was engraved on his shield: “non-attachment”; one motto was seen on his banner: “Thou hast the right to work but not to the fruits thereof.” Margaret responded anew to his spell, inspired by this man who radiated power and instilled it into all those with whom he came in contact.
One evening, after a particularly brilliant meeting, the Swami suddenly turned to her during the conversation and said, “I have been making plans for educating the women of my country. I think you could be of great help to me…But immediately this personal invitation faded into the background of the general conversation. It was the first time he had spoken of his countrywomen, of a dream he had cherished from the time he had lost a favorite sister. The grief he had felt at the sight of her dreary life had made him realize what had to be done for women. He continued: “Thousands of Indian women are waiting; and will lift their heads when a woman from the West comes to fight with them, live with them, and show them the way. In her seclusion the Hindu woman, thought only to have the soul of a child, possesses the inestimable treasure of a valiant faith and an ever-renewed energy. It is thanks to her life of patience and resignation, and to her power of fighting for an ideal, that the fire of honor bums bright within her. Many workers, both men and women, will be needed to respond to the call of the country when the wave of love for Sri Ramakrishna penetrates the cottages, the prisons, the mountains, the populous cities.’*
Margaret listened to the “call” with deep emotion. Yet she felt numb, incapable of responding. And suddenly she was seized with an indescribable anguish, a twinge of intense moral and physical pain, as if the bonds that held her to family and friends had snapped. Along with this came an unbearable sense of lassitude which prevented any show of enthusiasm. A cloud of details rose up before her, obscuring the vision of her desire. She could not speak, because sobs rose up and choked her.
This feeling of incoherence lasted several weeks, and then there came a sudden breach in the wall of obscurity by which she was surrounded. To follow the Swami? Yes, that was what she wanted: to live by his side, to help him, to do his work…. But, at the same time, she was afraid of that objective conception of the world which, according to him, was the essential condition for useful labor. Several times, when she had visited welfare institutions with him in the London suburbs, she had noticed that he only perceived the intrinsic merit of any action without giving his approval, and without attaching any importance either to the results that were obtained or to the consequences that might ensue. This was a criterion which left her a little baffled; and under it everything that she had accomplished so far – even her welfare work – seemed to crumble away. In the performance of a Christian act – feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, nursing the sick – does not the receiver always remain attached to the giver by some bond whether of gratitude or bitterness, by some feeling whether of joy or revolt? But the success or failure by which she was thrilled or disappointed remained the very things that the Swami esteemed least. He lived apart from that relation which exists between the individual and his actions, and he knew how to give without expecting or demanding anything in return.
Considered from the point of view of disinterested activity, in the way the Swami analyzed it, the sacrifice that Margaret wished to make of her life had no value; since, he said, “When we help the world, it is really ourselves we are helping.” Margaret was well aware that she was on the wrong track. In her uncertainty, she had concentrated on a single idea – to serve him. For her that meant complete self-effacement, and she had embraced this idea with all the Christian abnegation that could be desired, and with a burning sincerity.
But it was just this that Swami Vivekananda would not accept He had no use for a disciple who mutilated her mental powers and contracted her own personality. What he needed was a woman, radiating with infinite freedom, who had developed her talents to the limit of their capacity, who had amassed gifts which could be used later like helpful tools.
The day Margaret finally understood what the Swami expected of her marked the decisive moment of her life. But the struggle to reach this understanding had been so difficult that she felt incapable of speaking directly to the Swami on the matter. She asked Henrietta Muller to speak for her. One evening when the monk and Margaret were both guests at her house, Henrietta announced the news – Margaret offered her life to the Swami to collaborate with him in his work.
Swami Vivekananda showed no surprise. He replied by speaking of himself: ‘Tor my own part, I will be incarnated two hundred times, if that is necessary, to do this work among my people that I have undertaken.”
The same evening he told Margaret as they parted, “Yes, in India . . . that is where you belong. But only when you are ready…
That was in November, 1896.