7. Toward the East
When, a month later, Swami Vivekananda left for India, everyone expected Margaret to be one of the small group of disciples who embarked with him. But a full year of mature reflection was to pass before she took that step.
The last weeks had been hectic, with the Swami’s lectures following one another in quick succession. Some innate force moved him to fling forth the truths that were so clear to him, as if he had to sum up all his philosophy before taking his leave. He seemed tense and tired, and like a schoolboy he was counting the days to his departure, yet he continued to give the best of himself. In this outpouring he accepted no authority as final – since every commentator had always interpreted texts according to his own point of view – but in his vision of the future he seized upon the logical bases underlying Hinduism so as to compare them boldly with science (the two being identical), beyond all known limits and beyond the redoubtable enemy, theology.
After one of his lectures, Goodwin, his English disciple and private stenographer, noted: “The personal God is irrational by itself, but regarded, as in the Vedanta, as the highest conception of the Impersonal it becomes not only rational but a logical necessity.” He also wrote to Miss MacLeod, who had gone Backto New York: “Swami has evolved a new plan, his lectures are better than ever. He speaks undiluted roaring Vedanta.” And Margaret absorbed the message from the Swami which was addressed especially to her: “Vedanta is one with science in looking for the explanation of Nature from within, and rejecting an external cause as in a dualistic religion or theology. Nature must be explained by and from Nature/ To his disciples, every one of the last hours spent with the Swami Vive-kananda opened up unexpected vistas. But having transported them on the wings of his own flight, he would fall Backas if broken and exhausted*
It was with a deep sense of responsibility that Margaret weighed the idea which had been presented to her, and in which the courage that stamped all her character found its echo. Six months before, from Switzerland, the Swami had written to her:
My ideal can be put into a few words, and that is: to preach unto mankind their divinity, and how to make it manifest in every movement of life.
This world is in chains of superstition. I pity the oppressed, whether man or woman, and I pity the oppressors. One idea that I see clear as daylight is that misery is caused by ignorance and nothing else. Who will give the world light? Sacrifice in the past has been the law; it will be, alas, for ages to come. The earth’s bravest and best will have to sacrifice themselves for the good of many, for the welfare of all. Buddhas by hundreds are necessary, with eternal love and pity.
Religions of the world have become lifeless mockeries. What the world wants is character. The world is in need of those whose life is one burning love, selfless. That love will make every word tell like a thunderbolt.
It is no superstition with you, I am sure; you have the making in you of a world-mover, and others will also come. Bold words and bolder deeds are what we want. Awake, awake, great one! Let us call and call till the sleeping gods awake, till the God within answers to the call. What more is in life? What greater work? The details come to me as I go. I never make plans. Plans grow and work themselves. I only say, awake, awake!”
A deep depression settled upon the Swami’s friends when he had gone. Maxgaret and Mr. Sturdy had to summon all their energy to maintain cohesion and regularity among the group until their despondency had lifted; the wave of interest in the spiritual life had suddenly died down. The disciples were not left, however, without help and inspiration. Swami Vivekananda had agreed to invite one of his brothers, Swami Abhedananda – who like himself had sat at the feet of Sri Ramakrishna – to replace him in London. This monk took up his residence in Wimbledon, with one of Margaret’s friends. Swami Vivekananda hoped to return to London at the end of six months.
Twice a week now, under Swami Abhedananda, the friends of India gathered for collective meditation and the study of Sanskrit hymns. But it was only when the news came of Swami Vivekananda’s arrival in India that these meetings became really successful. Contact had at last been re-established. They followed every detail of his triumphal march toward Calcutta, where he had arrived in time to celebrate with his fellow monks the anniversary of his guru. Madras had received him with the musk of cymbals and drums, scattered palms at his feet. His procession had passed beneath triumphal arches amid fumes of incense. Calcutta had received him with fervid addresses of welcome to which he had replied, enthralling his hearers with that message of universal Truth which he had expounded in the West.
Swami Vivekananda had immediately harnessed this surge of good will and enthusiasm, to convert it into action. The most urgent task was to provide a permanent refuge for his fellow monks, whom sheer poverty had scattered all over the country. Some worked independently around Calcutta, others traveled the roads from Cape Comorin to the Himalayas, going from temple to temple to accomplish their discipline of purification. Swami Vivekananda dreamed of founding for them a monastery which would later become a university, where, in seclusion, a band of novices would acquire knowledge of and initiation to spiritual life and learn how to associate the secret of contemplating with that of action in modern life.
These plans had already been discussed in London with his English friend Mr. Sturdy, who after consulting those disciples who were nearest to the monk had given him a sum which doubled that brought in by the lectures. The Swami had with him £4,000 and the promise of help from several American ladies, who were his disdples, in buying the land for the future monastery as soon as he had chosen the site. But, ‘while he accepted this foreign aid which provided a good start, the Swami wanted his Hindu work to begin modestly with the pies and annas of the poorest Indians. In this way well-wishers from East and West, working together under the inspiration of Sri Ramakrishna’s spirit, would be linked.
The nucleus of this monastery had actually been in existence for ten years in the dilapidated house of Baranagore where the monks had gathered after the death of Sri Ramakrishna. With shaven heads, and clad in the ocher yellow of renunciation, they had accepted the authority of Swami Vivekananda, whom they recognized as their leader and superior. In a passionate collective wish to meditate, to tell their beads, to chant sacred songs, to dance in ecstasy at the name of Sri Ramakrishna, they had known days of intense exaltation, during which life and death were themselves only paltry obstacles to the divine felicity. Swami Vivekananda had trained them by means of numerous spiritual disciplines, and had made them immerse themselves in the lives of the Great Teachers. The example of Buddha Bod-hisattva had intensified their thirst for monastic life, that of Jesus their renunciation – as on the day they had taken their final vows – and those of Rama-Sita and Radha-Krishna the ecstasy of their union with the spirit of their guru. Then another period had followed, during which the monks had all been more or less seized by the obsession of solitary pilgrimage, the impulse to move on to the life of the wanderer. Only a few had stayed behind to guard the relics of Sri Ramakrishna.
When Swami Vivekananda returned to India he re-formed the group of monks, and introduced to them those new disciples who had come from the West to work with them. This was a first step in breaking down the orthodoxy which he sought to overcome, and in transforming the egoism of the monks’ spiritual searching and asceticism into a broader ideal of service to others. He succeeded because he came from triumph in the West, with the audacious scheme of uniting what had always been separated by caste laws and social obligations, and which now had to be reconciled and brought together in the teaching of Sri Ramakrishna.
This work, begun and carried out among a small group of devoted disciples, soon passed beyond those frontiers and found response among the faithful laymen and friends of the Swami who met at Bagh Bazar, a Hindu district in North Calcutta, in a large house owned by Balarum Babu. To establish the work on a permanent foundation, support was necessary, but it was not easy to obtain; these ambitious projects were like building a new house after an earthquake. But he gave himself up to it without sparing his own strength. Early in May, 1897, he wrote to Margaret:
… No doubt, especially when one has worked toward an ideal during a whole lifetime, and just when there is a bit of hope of seeing it partially accomplished, there comes a tremendous thwarting blow. I do not care for the disease, but that my ideals have not yet had the least opportunity of being worked out. And you know the difficulty is money. The Hindus are making processions and all that, but they cannot give money. The only help I got in the world was in England. I thought there that a thousand pounds was sufficient to start at least the principal centre in Calcutta, but my calculation was from the experience of Calcutta ten or twelve years ago. Since then, prices have gone up three or four times. The work has been started anyhow. A rickety little old house has been rented for six or seven shillings, where about twenty-four young men are being trained. When Margaret received this letter she cried out, “God be praised, the Math (monastery) exists!’ She trumpeted forth the news, and became at once the regular correspondent between the new organization and the Western disciples who were trying to understand its spirit. This association, which was to be called Ramakrishna Mission, had two important aspects. The first was that absolute obedience which Swami Vivekananda required from his monks, in order to insure their sacrifice of self and their indifferent abnegation of personal and individual interests. The second was the problem of how to co-ordinate monks and laymen. The Ramakrishna Mission was to revive for them, in the twentieth century, the heroic struggles of Saint Francis of Assisi and Saint Catherine of Siena, their efforts to preach the love of God, and their patience in knocking at the doors of the rich and powerful in search of assistance. The monks and their helpers were also to open schools and dispensaries, and to work for the education of the ignorant masses.
In the monastery archives there is a touching manuscript in existence: an unbound exercise book in which a monk copied out the first official reports which were sent to Margaret so that she might read them to the London disciples. The monks* existence was described in the greatest detail, with the manner in which they were led to a complete self-mastery before being sent out into the world.
Margaret studied their rule of life, established a parallel between her life and that of the novices. She drew from this exercise a salutary training for concentrating her vagabond thoughts, and tried to conform mentally to it Their timetable seemed to have been most judiciously drawn up. They rose at dawn and had several hours’ meditation before work. Certain monks celebrated the pujas, or services of adoration, during the morning. The midday meal and a two-hour siesta divided the day, which was then continued in study. In the evening a pandit (a Sanskrit scholar) taught the Upanishads, the Gita, and the Bible to the assembled monks. “If studies in logic and practical work were to be substituted for mystical researches,” she thought, “this rule of life might well be mine.” In this organization, in which Swami Vivekananda was the guiding hand, in which through his stimulation timid aspirations became passionate achievements in self-sacrifice, Margaret clearly saw her place. “If I go to India, a simple sentence will be added to the next report of the Monastery – a school for girls has been opened.” This thought made her intensely happy.
The letters she exchanged with the Swami concerned the work of both. She spoke to him at length of the London disciples. Confused by the dogmatic anthropomorphism of the divine paternity and by the objections to the last finality, believers and rationalists found in Vedanta a dear path where the intelligence was confronted by the idea of the One which has no second.
Blessed peace! It was that which provided a justification and a logical sanction for the previous experiences of each and for the unreasoned efforts to understand the Swami’s appeal: “So’ham, so’ham. I am He.” They had heard words they had always known but had never spoken*
On the other hand, Swami Vivekananda wrote to her from Almora, on the 20th of June, 1897:
. .. Let me tell you plainly. Every word you write I value, and every letter is welcome a hundred times. Write whenever you have a mind and opportunity, and whatever you like, knowing that nothing will be interpreted, nothing unappreciated. I have not had any news of the work for so long. Can you tell me anything? I do not expect any help from India, in spite of all the jubilating over me. They are so poor.
But I have started to work in the fashion in which I myself was trained – that is to say, under the trees, keeping body and soul together anyhow. The plan has also changed a little. I have sent some of my boys to work in the famine district It has acted like a miracle. I find, as I always thought, that it is through the heart, and that alone, that the world can be reached. The present plan is, therefore, to train numbers of young men from the highest classes not the lowest For the latter I shall have to wait a little, and the first attack will be made by sending a number of them over a district When these sappers and miners of religion have cleared the way, there will then be time enough to put in theory and philosophy.
A number of boys are already in training, but the recent earthquake has destroyed the poor shelter we had to work in, which was only rented anyway. Never mind. The work must be done without shelter, and under difficulties. . . . As yet it is shaven heads, rags and casual meals. This must change, however, and will, for are we not working for it, head and heart?
It is true in one way that the people here have so little to give up – yet renunciation is in our blood. One of my boys in training has been an executive engineer, in charge of a district. That means a very big position here. He gave it up like a straw!
An invigorating message was conveyed in the letter Swami Vivekananda wrote on the 4th of July: “For the first time since the days of Buddha, brahman boys are found nursing by the bedsides of cholera-stricken pariahs.”
The long earlier letter, meanwhile, was not an appeal; but Margaret and the London disciples felt compelled to collaborate in the heroic work. On her own initiative Margaret opened a first subscription. In the London newspapers she wrote:
“A religious order, unique of its kind, grouping together Christians, Mohammedans, and Hindus, has created a phenomenon of charity which is without equal since the days of Buddha. Give generously. Ten thousand human beings have been saved from famine in a month. A handful of rice can snatch a man from death. Our aid is necessary!” She was always a social worker as well as teacher, serving both needs….
“You can do more work for us from England than by coming here,” the Swami wrote to her later in July. “Lord bless you for your great self-sacrifice for the poor Indians!”
It was dear, from this sentence, that Swami Vivekananda accepted her gift of money but still discouraged her increasing desire to go to India. At last she wrote a message that was sent to him indirectly:
“Tell me frankly and candidly whether I shall be of use in India. I want to go. I want India to teach me how to fulfill myself.”
These concluding words were the magic touch, the expression of a new stage of development. Margaret wanted, at last, to receive and not to give, to learn and not to teach. The missionary bom in her forgot her unavowed arrogance; the religious attitude inherited from her family was no longer a stumbling block. Swami Vivekananda had saved her from herself. He wrote to her immediately:
A letter from S. reached me yesterday, informing me that you are determined to come to India and see things with your own eyes. . . . Let me tell you frankly that I am now convinced that you have a great future in the work for India.
What was wanted was not a man but a woman: a real lioness, to work for the Indians, women especially.
India cannot yet produce great women, she must borrow them from other nations. Your education, sincerity, purity, immense love, determination and above all, the Celtic blood, make you just the woman wanted.
Yet the difficulties are many. You cannot form any idea of the misery, the superstition, and the slavery that are here. You will be in the midst of a mass of half-naked men and women with quaint ideas of castes and isolation, shunning the white skin through fear or hatred and hated by them intensely. On the other hand, you will be looked upon by the white as a crank and every one of your movements will be watched with suspicion.
The climate is fearfully hot, our winter in most places being like your summer, and in the south it is always blazing. Not one European comfort is to be had in places out of the cities. If in spite of all this you dare venture into the work, you are welcome, a hundred times welcome. As for me, I am nobody here as elsewhere, but what little influence I have, shall be devoted to your service.
You must think well before you plunge in, and after work, if you fail in this or get disgusted, on my part I promise you I will stand by you unto death whether you work for India or not, whether you give up Vedanta or remain in it “The tusks of the elephant come out but never go back!” So are the words of a man never retracted. I promise you that. Again I must give you a bit of a warning. You must stand on your own feet and not be under the wing of … or anybody else.
This letter, which was written at the end of July, 1897, acted on Margaret like a whip. She decided at once upon her departure, though for the time she kept it a secret. During the months that followed she continued, in her correspondence, to examine minutely the mental attitude in which the Swami worked, so that she might model herself on him. He answered all her questions fully, providing her with a theoretical training for the task he expected her to fulfill.
Some people [he wrote on the first of October] do the best work when led. Not everyone is bom to lead. The best leader, however, is one who “leads like the baby.” The baby, though apparently depending on everyone, is the king of the household. At least, to my thinking that is the secret. . . . Many feel, but only a few can express. It is the power of expressing one’s love and appreciation and sympathy for others, that enables one person to succeed better in spreading the idea than others. . ..
The great difficulty is this: I see persons giving me almost the whole of their love. But I must not give any one the whole of mine in return, for that day the work would be ruined. Yet there are some who will look for such a return, not having the breadth of the impersonal view. It is absolutely necessary to the work that I should have the enthusiastic love of as many as possible while I myself remain entirely impersonal. Otherwise jealousy and quarrels would break up everything. A leader must be impersonal. I am sure you understand this. I do not mean one should be a brute, making use of the devotion of others for his own ends, and laughing in his sleeve meanwhile. What I mean is what I am, intensely personal in my love, but having the power to pluck out my own heart with my own hand, if it becomes necessary, “for the good of many, for the welfare of many,” as Buddha said. Madness of love and yet in it no bondage. Matter changed into spirit by the force of love. Nay, that is the gist of our Vedanta. There is but One, seen by the ignorant as matter, by the wise as God. And the history of civilization is the progressive reading of spirit into matter. The ignorant sees the person in the non-person. The sage sees the non-person in the person. Through pain and pleasure, joy and sorrow, this is the one lesson we are learning. … Too much sentiment hurts work. “Hard as steel and soft as a flower” is the motto.
Margaret pondered long over this letter. The only teaching the Swami could not give her was how to emerge from her past life. To advance toward freedom, she had to cut free from all that was still keeping her back, without assimilating “what was before her”‘ with any of the elements of “what was behind her,” without seeking in the gift of herself any echo of her disillusions as a woman. The Swami had made her wait until she desired the sacrifice of her life as a source of new happiness.
The only painful moment was when Margaret spoke to her mother. But her mother knew already. She had understood long before that Margaret had transcended her milieu and was preparing to accomplish God’s great task. With open hands, repeating often the prayer made thirty years before, she accepted the sacrifice. She had said, “Lord, if it be Thy will, I dedicate my child to Thee. . . .” Now she added, “Lord, we are in Thy hands, both she and I. . . But she hid these things in her heart because they formed the secret of her peaceful renunciation.
Margaret needed several months more to organize her departure, to fulfill the conditions required by Sri Ramakrishna of his faithful disciples – that is, the carrying out of all their obligations toward the world and their families before giving themselves to God and to spiritual life. With Margaret going, the family was losing its head, its main support. The two sisters and Richmond, who was now twenty, discussed at length their plans for the future. Margaret’s work at the Ruskin School was in full development and had many pupils, and she handed this work over to May.
Her friends thought that she was merely setting out on a study tour, and were not at all surprised. Only Mr. Sturdy knew that she was taking up a new life. She had had long conversations with him, and the state of absorption in which she lived was so great that he urged her to go. She also confided in her friend Nell Hammond, and in a long farewell talk in the latter’s cosy little house in Park Road she asked Nell to look after May, and also after Octavius Beatty, the friend of eight years’ standing. She emphasized the latter request in a letter in January: “I want you to make him one of your special friends. I have always felt that he was a little out of it with you! And I do want you to see the fine side of him. Read Mazzini and take him as a commentary. In that way you will see how good he really is, and how tender and sympathetic to all the weak and oppressed, and all his burning passion for humanity’
Octavius himself rebelled against Margaret’s departure. He listened to her reasons, then began to stride up and down in front of the fireplace. He took out his pipe and lighted it with deliberate movements. Then, sitting down by Margaret’s side, he remained a full hour looking at the fire crackling on the hearth, before he said, sadly, “I’ll come to the docks to see you off.”
On the day she left, a cold rain was falling, lashing the windows of the cab that took her to Tilbury. Everyone was shivering with emotion. Mother, sister, brother, Octavius Beatty, and Ebenezer Cook waited on the quay until the ship disappeared in the fog. For a long time they could see Margaret standing on the deck, hatless, her face crowned with her golden hair. She was strangely beautiful and serene: no longer belonging to them, but blessing them with infinite love; already her gray eyes were seeking the far-off light toward which she moved.
In her hand she held the letter in which Swami Vivekananda had written: “The tusks of the elephant come out but never go back* ; so are the words of a man never retracted. I promise you I will stand by you unto death.