The Dedicated – 8. Early Impressions

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8. Early Impressions

Belur is a village on the Ganges, five miles south of Calcutta, at a spot where the river is more than a mile wide. Here, in a dilapidated house on a fifteen-acre estate, Swami Vivekananda was preparing to establish the main center of the Ramakrishna Order and Mission. From the site, opposite the Baranagor landing stairs, Calcutta could be seen in the distance, while to the south, behind a curtain of palms, rose the golden domes of the Kali temple in the Dakshinesvar garden, where Sri Ramakrishna had lived.

The place was bought with the help of Henrietta Muller, and now the Swami was going Backand forth between the house of Balaran Babu and Belur, superintending the necessary reconstructions. The main building, the walls of which had been rotting with damp, was repaired, and a new floor was added, with several rooms opening on a veranda which overlooked the river. The small building which had been the guest house was also put in livable condition; and this had to be done in a hurry, for two more American women had announced their immediate arrival: Miss MacLeod, and the widow of the famous Norwegian violinist, Ole Bull. The house, as completed for their dwelling, was extremely simple: a bungalow with several connecting rooms, sparsely furnished; barred windows with no panes; and a veranda covered with a wide awning that let in a subdued light. In addition to restoring the buildings, the Swami had the miserable stairs – its steps down to the water quite worn out-rebuilt; and on each side there was a stone pillar with a light, to serve as guide for boatmen. Any rainfall, however, turned the site of the Mission into a sea of mud.

Sarah Thorp Bull was the daughter of an American Senator; she was a Roman Catholic, forty-eight years old, an accomplished musician who at tiie age of twenty had married the Norwegian virtuoso, forty years older than herself. She had now been a widow, rich and independent, for eighteen years, and for the past four years she, with Josephine MacLeod, had been working in fervent collaboration with Swami Vivekananda, and longing to come to India. During the Swami’s first American tour the two women had made plans to visit their instructor’s country, but he had tried to dissuade them. “Come by all means if you want to see poverty, degradation, filth, and men in rags who speak of God and who live only for God. But if you seek anything else, don’t come,” he said, and added, “We cannot bear one more word of criticism!” Now, four years later, he had himself invited them to come to India. They hurried to Belur in order to supervise work at the monastery from the very beginning. Their stay there was a consecration of their fidelity.

The two women, who arrived at the beginning of February, organized their life so as to be almost completely isolated from the world. Swami Vivekananda, who lived with his brother monks in a house about three-quarters of a mile away, came every morning at sunrise to spend an hour or two instructing them. One morning he said:

“Do you remember that Irish girl who came to the talks? She is here to devote her life!

“Oh, Swamiji, do let her come and live with us!” they both cried. “Can she?”

The Swami reflected for a moment Margaret was now in Calcutta studying, making her first adjustment to India. He had wanted her to live with his mother, in whose household she would have been plunged without delay into Hindu family life; but the old lady had gone to Darjeeling, in the mountains, and that plan could not be carried out now. In these circumstances the suggestion of his disciples seemed good, and he accepted it. Miss MacLeod at once sent a servant to Calcutta with the invitation; and Margaret arrived the next day. Her face was disfigured by mosquito bites, but her eyes were sparkling with joy. She was radiant, triumphant.

She was excited, too, over seeing Miss MacLeod again; and the latter, cordial and hospitable by nature, was delighted to introduce the Irish disciple to Sarah Bull, whom her intimate friends called Dhiramata, and who was clearly a personality. Still very beautiful, calm and self-possessed, she owed her special charm to her lively and precise intelligence, and to the persuasive self-assurance that never left her. All her life she had dictated to circumstances, and although she was always gentle she could not conceal her authoritative manner, even in her dealings with Swami Vivekananda, whom she acknowledged as her spiritual guide. It had to be admitted that the Swami was not wholly competent to deal with material matters, and Dhiramata lectured him as if he were her son. “Let me be a mother to you in temporal things/’ she said. “You are still a child, incapable of understanding a simple addition!’

Margaret’s arrival made the group of seven Western disciples in India complete, the others being Henrietta Muller and Captain and Mrs. Sevier. (Goodwin was in Madras at this time; he died four months later at OctacamuncL) To celebrate this reunion the Swami invited them all, with other of his followers for an open air gathering at Belur. It was one of those intimate occasions on which his savotr fatre persuaded him to gather the most orthodox of monks to meet with the foreign disciples, and to set up a warm current of sympathy through the discussion of the projects that interested them all.

“Yesterday we picnicked as his guests on a lovely bit of river bank,” Margaret wrote to Nell Hammond. “It was just like a bit of Wimbledon Common until you looked at the plants in detail. Then you found yourself under, not silver birches and nut trees and oaks, but acacia and mangoes in full blossom, with here and there a palm in front of you – and magnificent blossoming creepers and cable-like stems instead of bracken and bluebells underneath.”

This letter to her friend in London was not wholly taken up, however, with an outing in the Indian countryside! The Swami was drawing up his plans, and talked of them more every day. Mrs. Bull had offered to finance the future monastery and to have the projected temple built.* Margaret, who had promised a detailed report to the London disciples, went on in her letter to try to sum up the day’s conversations:

Now, as to the work here, the Swami’s great care is the establishment of a monastic college for the training of young men for the work of education – not only in India but also in the West. This is the point that I think we have always missed. I am sure you agree with me as to the value of the light that Vedanta throws on all religious life. What one does not realize is that this light has been in the conscious possession of one caste here for at least three thousand years, and that instead of giving and spreading it they have jealously excluded not only the gentiles but even the low castes of their own race! This is the reform Swami Vivekananda is preaching, and this is why we in England must form a source of material supplies. With the educational definition of the aim you are sufficiently familiar. You also know well enough that the spread of the devotion to Sri Ramakrishna is another way of defining the object which would better appeal to certain minds.

But every precaution had to be taken lest the broad-minded teaching of the Swami should be considered as the beginning of a new sect, with all its dogmas and limitations. He had been recognized in London as a “Master” because of his power of perceiving an abiding peace beyond all understanding, that belonged to all without distinction of sect In the West he had given understanding; now he had to offer the counterpart from India. Himself an ascetic, he was at the same time an agnostic and a monk.

But Margaret wrote now with difficulty. The point of view of the monk, expounded in a country whose background she did not fully comprehend, went so far beyond her vision that she had to correct herself several times to avoid distorting what she had heard. Going on with her report for the London group, in the letter to her friend, she wrote:

* The present grand temple, designed by Swami Vivekananda and bnOt after the centenary Ramakrishna celebrations in 1936, was the gift of two other American disciples.

To begin with, that bogey of ours – sectarianism. You have always said, in full agreement, “Do let us avoid making a new sect,” and so I have felt I hate being labeled or label-able. But I have now had time to consider the case quietly and alone, and I have come to the conclusion that a sect is a group of people carefully enclosed and guarded from contact with other, equal groups. It is the antagonism to others that constitutes a sect, not union. Therefore if members of various sects, without abandoning their own existing associations, choose to form a group for the special study of a certain subject or the special support of a given creed or movement it is surely no more a religious sect than the Folklore Society or the Society for the Protection of Hospital Patients or the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. At the same time, the clear definition of such a group enables it to conserve the co-operative power of the members instead of dissipating it, gives them area for appeal and so on. Don’t you agree? Now that I have got the bearings of the thing like this, the word “sect” seems to me a mere bogey, and our terror of a new one just as great a weakness as any other fear, say of Russians or scarlet fever.. . .

There is another side again. This movement is no less than the consolidation of the Empire along spiritual lines. Mrs. Bull declares that the Theosophical Society is the stalking-horse of the Russian Government. It is certain that members of the Theosophical Society have in the recent crisis been inviting the people to sedition and mutiny against us. On the contrary not only has the new Hinduism found its firm foothold in the United States and in London, but everyone who has joined it actively is passionately loyal to England. When Swami Vivekananda is in India, at least as regards the Hindu section of the community, there will be no sedition or the shadow of it. I do think, don’t you, that the thing is broad enough to appeal to other sections in England outside the missionary-senders, and when we begin the women’s side, all women leaders ought to be in sympathy!

This work promised immeasurable joys.


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