HALF-WAY ACROSS THE WORLD
On the 20th of June 1899, I left Calcutta, by the same steamer as the Swami, and his gurubhai Turiyananda1, for London, which we reached on the morning of July 31st. A few weeks later he left England for America, where I met him once more, late in September.
After the five or six weeks which I spent there, as a guest in the same house as he, and a fortnight in Brittany in the following year, 1900, I never again enjoyed any long unbroken opportunity of being with him. Towards the end of 1900 he returned to India, but I remained in the West until the beginning of 1902.
And when I then reached India, it was only as if to be present at the closing scene, to receive the last benediction. To this voyage of six weeks I look Backas the greatest occasion of my life. I missed no opportunity of the Swami’s society that presented itself, and accepted practically no other, filling up the time with quiet writing and needlework; thus I received one long continuous impression of his mind and personality, for which I can never be sufficiently thankful.
From the beginning of the voyage to the end, the flow of thought and story went on. One never knew what moment would see the flash of intuition, and hear the ringing utterance of some fresh truth. It was while we sat chatting in the River on the first afternoon, that he suddenly exclaimed, “Yes! the older I grow, the more everything seems to me to lie in manliness2. This is my new gospel. Do even evil like a man! Be wicked, if you must, on a great scale!” And these words link themselves in my memory with those of another day, when I had been reminding him of the rareness of criminality in India.
And he turned on me, full of sorrowful protest. “Would God it were otherwise in my land!” he said, “for this is verily the virtuousness of death!” Stories of the Siva-Ratri, or Dark Night of Siva, of Prithi Rai, of the judgment seat of Vikramaditya, of Buddha and Yasodhara, and a thousand more, were constantly coming up. And a noticeable point was, that one never heard the same thing twice. There was the perpetual study of caste; the constant examination and re-statement of ideas; the talk of work, past present, and future; and above all the vindication of Humanity, never abandoned, never weakened, always rising to new heights of defence of the undefended, of chivalry for the weak. Our Master has come and he
1. Turiyananda, like Swami Vivekananda, was one of the 16 direct-disciples of Sri Ramakrishna
Paramahamsa. The term gurubhai stands for “brother-disciple”, meaning they shared a common spiritual parent in their divine guru Sri Ramakrishna.
2. Here the word manliness is not meant to convey a chauvinistic ideal, but instead Swami
Vivekananda is referring to the qualities of courage, bravery and fearlessness, which even women
has gone, and in the priceless memory he has left with us who knew him, there is no other thing so great, as this his love of man.
I cannot forget his indignation when he heard some European reference to cannibalism, as if it were a normal part of life in some societies. “That is not true!” he said, when he had heard to the end. “No nation ever ate human flesh, save as a religious sacrifice, or in war, out of revenge. Don’t you see? that’s not the way of gregarious animals! It would cut at the roots of social life!” Kropotkin’s great work on “Mutual Aid” had not yet appeared, when these words were said. It was his love of Humanity, and his instinct on behalf of each in his own place, that gave to the Swami so clear an insight.
Again he talked of the religious impulse, “Sex-love and creation!” he cried, “These are at the root of most religion. And these in India are called Vaishnavism, and in the West Christianity. How few have dared to worship Death, or Kali! Let us worship Death! Let us embrace the Terrible, because it is terrible; not asking that it be toned down. Let us take misery, for misery’s own sake!”
As we came to the place where the river-water met the ocean, we could see why the sea had been called ‘Kali Pani’ or black water, while the river was ‘Sadha Pani’ or white, and the Swami explained how it was the great reverence of Hindus for the ocean, forbidding them to defile it by crossing it, that had made such journeys equal to out-casting for so many centuries. Then, as the ship crossed the line, touching the sea for the first time, he chanted “Namo Shivaya! Namo Shivaya! Passing from the Land of Renunciation to the Land of the Enjoyment of the World!”
He was talking again, of the fact that he who would be great must suffer, and how some were fated to see every joy of the senses turn to ashes, and he said “The whole of life is only a swan-song! Never forget those lines –
‘The lion, when stricken to the heart, gives out his mightiest roar.
When smitten on the head, the cobra lifts its hood.
And the majesty of the soul comes forth, only when a man is wounded to his depths.'”
Now he would answer a question, with infinite patience, and again he would play with historic and literary speculations. Again and again his mind would return to the Buddhist period, as the crux of a real understanding of Indian history.
“The three cycles of Buddhism,” he said, one day, “were five hundred years of the Law, five hundred years of Images, and five hundred years of Tantras. You must not imagine that there was ever a religion in India called Buddhism, with temples and priests of its own order! Nothing of the sort. It was always within Hinduism. Only at one time the influence of Buddha was paramount, and this made the nation monastic.” He had been discussing the question of the adoption into Buddhism, as its saints, of the Nags of Kashmir (the great serpents who were supposed to dwell within the springs), after the terrible winter that followed their deposition as deities.
And he drifted on to talk about the Soma plant, picturing how, for a thousand years after the Himalayan period, it was annually received in Indian villages as if it were a king, the people going out to meet it on a given day, and bringing it in rejoicing. And now it cannot even be identified!
Again it was Sher Shah of whom he talked, – Sher Shah, making a thirty years’ interim in the reign of Humayoon. I remember the accession of delight with which he began the subject, saying ”He was once a boy, running about the streets of Bengal!” He ended by showing how the Grand Trunk Road from Chittagong to Peshawar, the Postal system, and the Government Bank, were all his work.
And then there were a few minutes of silence, and he began reciting lines from the Guru Gita. “To that Guru who is Brahman, to that Guru who is Vishnu, to that Guru who is Siva, to that Guru who is Para Brahman, I bow down to that Guru. From the Guru is the beginning, yet is he without beginning: to that Guru who is greatest among the gods, to that Guru who is Para Brahman, I bow down to that Guru.”
He was pursuing some train of thought within, to which these snatches of prayer bore some relation. A moment or two went by, and suddenly he broke his reverie, saying “Yes, Buddha was right! It must be cause and effect in Karma. This individuality cannot but be an illusion!”
It was the next morning, and I had supposed him to be dozing in his chair, when he suddenly exclaimed, “Why the memory of one life is like millions of years of confinement, and they want to wake up the memory of many lives! Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof!”
“I have just been talking to Turiyananda about conservative and liberal ideas,” he said, as he met me on deck before breakfast one morning, and straightway plunged into the subject.
“The conservative’s whole ideal is submission. Your ideal is struggle. Consequently it is we who enjoy life, and never you! You are always striving to change yours to something better, and before a millionth part of the change is carried out, you die. The Western ideal is to be doing: the Eastern to be suffering. The perfect life would be a wonderful harmony between doing and suffering. But that can never be.”
“In our system it is accepted that a man cannot have all he desires. Life is subjected to many restraints. This is ugly, yet it brings out points of light and strength. Our liberals see only the ugliness, and try to throw it off. But they substitute something quite as bad, and the new custom takes as long as the old, for us to work to its centres of strength.”
“Will is not strengthened by change. It is weakened and enslaved by it. But we must be always absorbing. Will grows stronger by absorption. And consciously or unconsciously, will is the one thing in the world that we admire. Suttee is great, in the eyes of the whole world, because of the will that it manifests.”
“It is selfishness that we must seek to eliminate! I find that whenever I have made a mistake in my life, it has always been because self entered into the calculation. Where self has not been involved, my judgment has gone straight to the mark.”
“Without this self, there would have been no religious systems. If man had not wanted anything for himself, do you think he would have had all this praying and worship? Why! he would never have thought of God at all, except perhaps for a little praise now and then, at the sight of a beautiful landscape or something. And that is the only attitude there ought to be. All praise and thanks. If only we were rid of self!”
“You are quite wrong,” he said again, “when you think that fighting is a sign of growth. It is not so at all. Absorption is the sign. Hinduism is the very genius of absorption. We have never cared for fighting. Of course we could strike a blow now and then, in defence of our homes! That was right. But we never cared for fighting for its own sake. Everyone had to learn that. So let these races of new-comers whirl on! They’ll all be taken into Hinduism in the end!”
He never thought of his Mother-Church or his Motherland except as dominant; and again and again, when thinking of definite schemes, he would ejaculate, in his whimsical way, “Yes, it is true! If European men or women are to work in India, it must be under the black man!”
He brooded much over the national achievement. “Well! well!” he would say, “We have done one thing that no other people ever did. We have converted a whole nation to one or two ideas. Non-beef-eating for instance. Not one Hindu eats beef. No, no!” – turning sharply round – “it’s not at all like European non-cat-eating; for beef was formerly the food of the country!”
We were discussing a certain opponent of his own, and I suggested that he was guilty of putting his sect above his country. “That is Asiatic,” retorted the Swami warmly, “and it is grand! Only he had not the brain to conceive, nor the patience to wait!”‘ And then he went off into a musing on Kali.
“I am not one of those,” he chanted,
“Who put the garland of skulls round Thy neck,
And then look Backin terror And call Thee ‘The Merciful ‘!
The heart must become a burial ground,
Pride, selfishness, and desire all broken into dust,
Then and then alone will the Mother dance there!”
“I love terror for its own sake,” he went on, “despair for its own sake, misery for its own sake. Fight always. Fight and fight on, though always in defeat. That’s the ideal. That’s the ideal.”
“The totality of all souls, not the human alone,” he said once, “is the Personal God. The will of the Totality nothing can resist. It is what we know as Law. And this is what we mean by Siva and Kali, and so on.”
Some of the most beautiful scenes in the world have been made for me more beautiful, by listening, in their midst, to these long soliloquies.
It was dark when we approached Sicily, and against the sunset sky, Etna was in slight eruption. As we entered the straits of Messina, the moon rose, and I walked up and down the deck beside the Swami, while he dwelt on the fact that beauty is not external, but already in the mind. On one side frowned the dark crags of the Italian coast, on the other, the island was touched with silver light. “Messina must thank me!” he said, “It is I who give her all her beauty!”
Then he talked of the fever of longing to reach God, that had wakened in him as a boy, and of how he would begin repeating a text before sunrise, and remain all day repeating it, without stirring. He was trying here to explain the idea of tapasya, in answer to my questions, and he spoke of the old way of lighting four fires, and sitting in the midst, hour after hour, with the sun over-head, reining in the mind. “Worship the terrible!” he ended, “Worship Death! All else is vain. All struggle is vain. That is the last lesson. Yet this is not the coward’s love of death, not the love of the weak, or the suicide. It is the welcome of the strong man, who has sounded everything to its depths, and knows that there is no alternative.”