9. The First Steps
For the three women – fellow devotees and friends – who were now living together in the little guesthouse at Belur, the most profitable hours of the day were those when the Swami Vivekananda visited them. Usually he came alone, but he was sometimes accompanied by a group of young novices. These two months of teaching (February and March, 1898) unleashed a storm of emotion upon all his followers.
His presence transformed the cottage. The women would sit around him, the novices at his feet. He poured out his soul to them and would have won over a heart of stone. Was he not a lover of India, loving it in its essence without even looking at it, with the instinct of the tree attached to the earth by its roots? He extolled the religious emotion of his people, and called upon his disciples and friends to work closely with him, in order to spur the Indians to action and make them realize their latent abilities. On all sides he was creating the India of the future. His message could be summed up in these words: “The worship and service of humanity are the only prayer in which the worshiper, the worship, and the Worshiped are One. . . . We must have the faith to be real patriots! The heart shudders before the thousands of creatures who are dying of hunger, who live in ignorance. Let each one understand that he is divine! Let each learn and know it. Let us awake! Let us arise and tell them! To work!”
He knew well that he was being watched on all sides. With a handful of monks eager to sacrifice themselves, who were one with him as he had been one with Sri Ramakrishna, his beloved master, he was making a superhuman effort. He had succeeded in transforming their sentimentality and their religious intensity into a quality of living achievement in which different dogmas, apparently contradictory, sustained a growing enthusiasm. He imposed unorthodox rules on the fellow workers who marched under his leadership. He went so far as to tell them. “Let the Vedas, the Koran, the Puranas, and all scriptural lumber rest for some time, let there be worship of the visible God of Love and Kindness in the country. All idea of separation is bondage, that of non-differentiation is liberation. Let us admit boys of all religions among us – Hindu, Mohammedan, Christian, or anything – but not too abruptly. The only thing you will have to do is to make separate arrangements for their food, and to teach them that they may be moral, manly, and devoted to doing good to others. This indeed is religion.’*
The Swami tolerated no criticism, and his strong personality reached out beyond the framework he was setting up. If, on the one hand, he knew that his consecrated Western disciples were to be submitted to all the indignities of isolation which outcasts were made to undergo (since all foreigners are outcastes, or mleccha, in India), on the other hand he granted them privileges which were gradually to be recognized, including that of entering the sanctuary of Sri Ramakrishna, and of worshiping there. He invited pariahs to eat with him. Like a poet, he sang of humanity; and, moving without shock of transition from the real to the unreal, he mingled the religious experience of a thousand years with that of every day. “The worship of the Absolute is within the power of any creature, powerful or wretched, brahman, or pariah,” he said. “Worship it as it manifests itself. Religion is practical experience, a personal element that has been realized.” Margaret was to explain later, “It was as if he knew that the first material of new consciousness must be a succession of vivid, but isolated, experiences, poured out without proper sequences, so as to provoke the mind of the learner to work for its own conception of order and realization.”
Swami Vivekananda spoke with a genuine tenderness to the three women, at the same time addressing himself more particularly to Margaret, who had come to work with him among the poor. “Open your hearts wide to receive the treasure of the poor,” he said to them all as they sat together. “For them you are God Himself entering their house. Famished, degraded, debased, they will confer on you the supreme good, since they see in you the Perfection to be worshiped. ‘What do you bring them in exchange?”
One day Miss MacLeod asked him, “Swamiji, how can I serve you best?”
“Love India!” he replied, “and serve it. Worship this land which is a prayer crying out toward Heaven.”
Swami Vivekananda gave all that it was in his power to give, in order that he might convey the true physiognomy of India. He conducted his disciples through his own personal experience, surrendering himself to the burden of love which Sri Ramakrishna had bequeathed him and living through a thousand intemos in his eagerness to serve the poorest. He spoke to them also ot his life as a wandering monk: a period in which, frenzied with the love of God, his face and limbs burned with the sun, he no longer felt the dust of the desert or the cold air of the mountains which were breaking his rebellious body.
Some mornings, when the Swami was too tired to come to the cottage, one of the older monks would take his place. The three women would take advantage of these occasions to ask all kinds of questions about Swami Vivekananda’s life. Had this monk known him in his youth? Had he accompanied him on his pilgrimages?”
At an appropriate moment Margaret asked, insistently, “Tell us something of Swami’s life at the feet of Sri Ramakrishna.”
Then the monk described the wonderful existence, full of a radiant light, that had been theirs at Dakshinesvar and Cos-sipore, where Sri Ramakrishna had died. “We have retained that life,” he said, “thanks to Narendra (Swami Vivekananda’s first name). It is he who now incarnates the spirit o£ Sri Ramakrishna.”
For Margaret Noble, the moments of deepest joy were those in which Swami Vivekananda gave her precise and personal instructions. She drank in his words, but when the time came for him to leave she felt an indefinable sorrow. She longed to say to him, “Swamiji – the weeks are passing, and you haven’t said a word about the new school for which I came. Why don’t you speak about it? I w’ant to start work. . . Sometimes she would go Backwith him along the cactus-lined path, but she could find no way of breaking her impatient silence. The Swrami walked along hurriedly. When Margaret succeeded in making an attempt to raise the question he interrupted her, and pointed to the banks of the Ganges, sparkling in the morning light.
“Live in the sun,” he said. “Look at what is going on around you. Everything is so beautiful! Don’t make any plans. That is not your job.”
On some days he would remain entirely absorbed in his thoughts, absolutely inscrutable; and when Margaret left him she was overwhelmed by the uncertainty in which she felt herself floundering. “What am I doing here for so long?” she complained to Miss McLeod. “Why doesn’t the Swami speak to me about work?”
With the absence of haste that is characteristic of spiritual leaders, Swami Vivekananda was waiting until the heart of his disciple opened, and she learned by herself the secret of the right attitude to adopt. She did not realize that her will-to-action and her intelligence were standing between her and the broad road which he wanted her to take. Blinded by her desire to succeed, to fulfill her task well, Margaret was incapable, as yet, of understanding the first lesson that India was teaching her: to live in the present moment, to find in the absence of “willing” the secret of disinterested work. The Swami remained silent because any words would have been in vain.. She had to discover by herself that her progressive and “go-ahead” educational methods were of little concern to India, and interested the Swami only a little. If he had summoned her it was because he needed her creative force, her stability and her rectitude, because he knew that she was capable of seing the ideal behind the goal without worrying about the lack of means at the outset Plans become integrated, and succeed by themselves, when they are the result of self-renunciation.
Completely sure in his touch, the Swami worked with the object of gradually changing Margaret under the influence of India’s symbolic thought. To become a real educator of Hindu women, she must become a Hindu woman herself, even in her most spontaneous reactions. All that a Hindu woman inherited at birth must come to Margaret through acquired knowledge. But how was she to get it? Intellectually she accepted such a discipline, of course; but the Swami wanted more than that For this reason he would recall, during their morning discussions, the famous women of India’s sacred history – Si ta, Mirabai, and all their sisters, whose virtues influenced Indian women still. But he deeply mistrusted Margaret’s enthusiasms, since they betrayed uncontrolled impulses, and therefore he suggested that she take as a model the quiet and modest attitude of the Hindu woman in the zenana – the segregated enclosure which no man outside the family may enter – of her own house. With an actual absorption, in this profound sense, the acquistion of the Hindu woman’s mentality would not mean a forced or brusque evolution but a transformation of the mental structure itself, a slow assimilation which had as its object a new conception of values. The keen-minded Western woman, certain of her intelligence, had to learn to reveal herself through masterful immobility, through calm meditation, and through the experience of the soul.
A fierce duel awaited instructor and disciple before this result could be achieved. The Swami sought to disarrange the elements of his pupil’s reason, while demanding for this purpose the full resistance of her personality throughout the mental operation. At no moment could the Swami dispense with her intellectual approval, for that had been at the root of the sincerity she had displayed in coming to India; its force undiminished, it now became the basis of her voluntary transformation. It was only on this condition that Swami Vivekananda could provide her with the neutralizing elements necessary for her stability. When he judged her sufficiently well established on a new line of consciousness, he would suddenly decide to uproot her and to lead her wherever he wished her to go, that she might espouse India in all its intimacy.
As a leader who knew all the details of the road to be followed, he sometimes seemed hard, especially when he required from Margaret a complete submission, an abandonment of habit, and a break with former associations. He asked her, for example – during a relatively short period, it is true, but with no half-measures – to accept the living conditions of the most orthodox brahmans, to dress like a poor woman who possessed only one sari, to sleep on the ground, to eat with her fingers, to submit to all the restrictions and limitations imposed upon women in India until she understood their sense and value. Then, later, he gave her the secret of entering into the constructive solitude of the soul, the perfect silence. Several years after this period of learning, Margaret was to watch and fast and pray behind her closed doors, clear-sighted and with an inward happiness the radiation of which many were to enjoy.
The difficult thing to conceive was that Swami Vivekananda modeled Margaret’s thought in absolute mental obedience and humility in order to inspire her with total liberty of action. He rejoiced in advance over the initiative she was to show later. He even said to his fellow monks: “Never restrict her liberty. What do you know about what I have given her?” On this point he and she achieved an equilibrium of their possibilities. They needed each other to the same extent, with the same intensity. He was to provide her with the necessary powers, and with a full certitude in setting out for her goal; then he was to cut oft the present from the past and create for her that terrible phase of isolation where all foundations are lacking. There lay the mystic knot, named in many different ways. It is in the darkness of night that the sacrifice is accomplished, that the spiritual being is awakened to a new life. It grows, enjoys the blessing of fruitful manna, and would remain in that bliss should not the spiritual master suddenly break every fence of protection. It is like opening its cage to a bird strong enough to possess the sky.
Swami Vivekananda “would encourage her every time she trembled or stumbled, saying, “Look before you! How clear and simple everything is in the Light!”
At the beginning, Margaret lost herself in a jungle of conflicting emotions and tried to recall the Swami she had known in London. How different he had become from that grave, measured, delicate personage! Here, she had to deal with an authoritative instructor whose background escaped her, and who possessed a suppleness which made him almost incomprehensible. But how grateful she was to him for having the audacity never to make easy that which was difficult and even repugnant to her! In every effort of spiritual labor her opposition equaled the submission she accepted in advance, and she retained the will power to rely on the first cause and not on the effects. Suddenly Swami Vivekananda would glide from the purest monastic teaching to which he had always bound her to what she would have called crudest “manifestations of superstition” – all with the same nonchalance he observed in his dress. One never knew if he was going to arrive dressed as a lord in silken robes or with his body barely covered with a gerrua cloth – the ocher yellow of wandering monks. One thing was certain: as soon as the Swami appeared a wave of love, of real communica-tive passion, was released to flow over and through all around him.
One night in February, she saw him take part in a curious scene which carried her away by its intensity. It took place when the full moon was up, in front of the house of Naba Gopal Babu, a disciple who was celebrating the dedication of a shrine to Sri Ramakrishna.
All the monks had come by the Ganges in three broad sailing boats lit up by resin torches. As soon as they stepped onto the bank, in the midst of the waiting crowd, they formed a tumultuous procession with drums, cymbals, and gongs. Mar-
garet had seen Swami Vivekananda go by dancing like a madman, completely carried away, intoxicated with love. Around his neck hung garlands of flowers and the drum with which he accompanied a song taken up in the chorus. “Who is that naked child who has come to the hut of the poor brahman? . . A frenzy seized upon the gesticulating audience. Fireworks crackled. Drums beat out pulsating, harmonized rhythms for the dancers. As the procession drew up in front of the house, conches wailed into the night Swami Vivekananda prostrated himself in the dust, smearing his head with ashes, before setting up the image of Sri Ramakrishna with the necessary sacred formulas.
Margaret asked herself, “What is this delirious joy? Is it madness, humility, or love?”
Margaret envied every one of those monks to whom Swami Vivekananda was devoting the greater part of his time. She would have liked to live with them and share their fervor. She knew that every day, for hours, the Swami meditated, sang, and worshiped with his novices, and that from a purely philosophical discussion he led them on without transition to die threshold of ecstasy. The monastery’s spiritual life consumed all these men like a flame, and drew forth a moving tongue of spirituality.
While the novice was giving her lessons in Bengali, Margaret found herself watching him, studying his attitude and expressions. Had he not been the father of a family, a man racked with doubt, until the day Swami Vivekananda had opened his eyes and shown him the way of light? He replied with embarrassing frankness to all the questions which Margaret put to him; his soul was limpid as a mountain stream. Sensing his pupil’s anxiety, he did all he could to help her. His first piece of advice was not to ask hundreds of difficult and embarrassing questions but to apply herself assiduously to the only task that was required of her at the moment; namely, the learning of Bengali, particularly those everyday words which can win hearts.
By this means she could become a useful instrument in the hands of Swamiji
The novice’s simple advice brought her serenity. She derived benefit, by deduction, from the little he told her. And yet, in the absence of living personal experience, that benefit remained a dead letter. She was well aware that in order to be the spiritual daughter of Swami Vivekananda she had to become one with the monks, but she did not know how to achieve this. Would perfect exterior composure, copied from theirs, help her to find the attitude she was seeking? Margaret tried it. She set about faithfully acquiring the placid demeanor of the novice, and under his guidance she sought to master everything that went on in her mind.
“I have always thought,” she was to explain later, “that it was due to this fact that I found myself on the line of communication between his mind and that of our master – as on the path of interaction between some major and minor heliograph – and that I owed by ability thereafter to read and understand a little of those feelings and ideas with which the air about us was charged. . .
Why could she not be like her two American friends, who were less exacting, and who lived happily without seeking to weave the experience of the Swami into their own lives Margaret felt as if she were caught in a hand-vice, impelled toward a deep and full self-realization. In the midst of the pure love she felt for the master she had accepted, she was the prey of an increasing fear against which she could not struggle. Where was he leading her? In silence, and with but one discipline – that of total purity – he was teaching her to live by incessantly controlling her sincerity. He asked her to expect nothing from the future and to attach no value to the sacrifice of her life. The present was the only moment that counted; the moment wrapped in silence, the moment which is God Himself, the Intangible, the Omnipresent . . .
One morning, when Swami Vivekananda was speaking of the authority of the guru, who is above father and mother, who is the Friend, the spiritual Instructor, the Master all in all, who chooses or rejects his disciples, and who knows their most intimate thoughts even in “seed form/’ Margaret hid her face in her hands and gave way to the tumult of the unescapable questions within her. Was she ready, now, to abandon the integrity of that mental being which masqueraded as her ego? Had she to assume that state of conscious passivity in which the personality is sacrificed in a tadt obedience? Had she to pass that test before she could experience the serene liberty of the monks, who can gambol in the fields like children in the sun, and then immediately continue their meditations in silence? Sri Rama-krishna had been in the fullest that “guru” for all the monks.
She was soon to cross the threshold beyond which the answer to her questions lay.