XVII. THE SWAMI’S MISSION CONSIDERED AS A WHOLE
The mission of Buddha, in the centuries before the Christian era, was twofold. He was the source, on the one hand, of a current of energy, that swept out from the home-waters to warm and fertilise the shores of distant lands. India, scattering his message over the Eastern world, became the maker of nations, of churches, of literatures, arts and scientific systems, in countries far beyond her own borders.
But within India proper, the life of the Great Teacher was the first nationaliser. By democratising the Aryan culture of the Upanishads, Buddha determined the common Indian civilisation, and gave birth to the Indian nation of future ages.
Similarly, in the great life that I have seen, I cannot but think that a double purpose is served, – one of world-moving, and another, of nation-making. As regarded foreign countries, Vivekananda was the first authoritative exponent, to Western nations, of the ideas of the Vedas and Upanishads. He had no dogma of his own to set forth. “I have never,” he said, “quoted anything but the Vedas and Upanishads, and from them only that the word strength!” He preached mukti instead of heaven; enlightenment instead of salvation; the realisation of the Immanent Unity, Brahman, instead of God; the truth of all faiths, instead of the binding force of any one.
Western scholars were sometimes amazed and uncomfortable, at hearing the subject of the learned researches of the study poured out as living truths, with all the fervour of the pulpit, but the scholarship of the preacher proved itself easily superior to any tests they could offer.
His doctrine was no academic system of metaphysics, of purely historic and linguistic interest, but the heart’s faith of a living people, who have struggled continuously for its realisation, in life and in death, for twenty-five centuries. Books had been to him not the source and fountain of knowledge, but a mere commentary on, and explanation of, a Life whose brightness would, without them have dazzled him, and left him incapable of analysing it.
It had been this same life of Ramakrishna Paramahamsa that had forced upon him the conviction that the theory of Advaita, as propounded by Sankaracharya – the theory that all is One and there is no second was ultimately the only truth.
It was this life, re-enforced of course by his own experience, that had convinced him that even such philosophies* as seemed to culminate at a point short of the Absolute Oneness, would prove in the end to be dealing with phases only, of this supreme realisation.
As an expression of this goal, however, every sincere belief was true. “Bow thy head and adore,” had said Sri Ramakrishna, “where others worship, for in that form in which man has called on Him, God will assuredly appear.” At each step between the earth and the sun, said the Swami, we might conceivably take a photograph. No two of these would be perfectly similar. Yet which could be said to be untrue? These sayings referred to the compatibility of the antagonistic religious ideas of different sects and creeds.
But when the Teacher of Dakshineshwar set himself to determine the accessibility of the highest illumination through the life of woman, we are perhaps justified in feeling that he opened the door to a deeper regard for the sacredness of what is commonly considered to be merely social and secular.
In a world of symbols, he proved the service of the home as true a means to God as attendance on the altar; the sacraments of the temple, though served by priestly hands, not more a means of grace than the common bread of the household, broken and distributed by wife or mother. “Everything, even the name of God,” said Sri Ramakrishna, “is Maya. But some of this Maya helps us towards freedom; the rest only leads us deeper into bondage.”
In showing, that the daily life of a good woman was thus blessed, that a home was a temple, that courtesy, hospitality, and the fulfilment of duty in the world might be made into one long act of worship, Sri Ramakrishna, as I think, provided basis and sanction for what was to be a predominant thought with his great disciple.
The Swami Vivekananda, in his wanderings over India during subsequent years, studied its multitude of small social formations, each embodying its central religious conviction, and found in all broken gleams of that brightness which he had seen at its fullest in his Master.
But when, in 1893, he began to see the world outside India, it was by national and patriotic unities that he was confronted. And in these, as naturally as in the creeds and sects of his own land, he continued to feel the outworking of the Divine within Man. For many years, this was entirely unconscious, yet no one around him stood unimpressed by his eager study of the strong points of different peoples.
* Dualism the doctrine of the ultimate difference between soul and God saved and Saviour’ and Qualified Dualism, the mergence of the soul in the realisation of God, but not in His being.
One day, in the course of my voyage to England, when he had been telling me, with the greatest delight, of the skilled seamanship and exquisite courtesy of the Turk, I drew his attention to the astonishing character of his enthusiasm. His mind seemed to turn to the thought of the ship’s servants, whose childlike devotion to himself had touched him deeply. “You see, I love our Mohammedans!” he said simply, as if accused of a fault. “Yes,” I answered, “but what I want to understand is this habit of seeing every people from their strongest aspect. Where did it come from? Do you recognise it in any historical character? Or is it in some way derived from Sri Ramakrishna?”
Slowly the look of puzzled surprise left his face. “It must have been the training under Ramakrishna Paramahamsa,” he answered. “We all went by his path to some extent. Of course it was not so difficult for us as he made it for himself. He would eat and dress like the people he wanted to understand, take their initiation, and use their language. ‘One must learn,’ he said ‘to put oneself into another man’s very soul.’ And this method was his own! No one ever before in India became Christian and Mohammedan and Vaishnava by turns!”
Thus a nationality, in the Swami’s eyes, had all the sacredness of a church, – a church whose inmost striving was to express its own conception of ideal manhood. “The longer I live,” he was once heard to ejaculate, “the more I think that the whole thing is summed up in manliness!”
By a reflex of consciousness, the more he became acquainted with the strength and lovableness of other nations, the more proud he grew of his Indian birth, becoming daily more aware of those things in which his own Motherland, in her turn, stood supreme.
He discussed nations, like epochs, from various points of view successively, not blinding himself to any aspect of their vast personality. The offspring of the Roman Empire he considered always to be brutal, and the Japanese notion of marriage he held in horror. Unvaryingly, nevertheless, he would sum up the case in terms of the constructive ideals, never of the defects, of a community; and in one of the last utterances I heard from him on these subjects, he said, “For patriotism, the Japanese! For purity, the Hindu! And for manliness, the European! There is no other in the world,” he added with emphasis, “who understands, as does the Englishman, what should be the glory of a man!”
His object as regarded India, said the Swami, in a private conversation, had always been “to make Hinduism aggressive.” The Eternal Faith must become active and proselytising, capable of sending out special missions, of making converts, of taking Backinto her fold those of her own children who had been perverted from her, and of the conscious and deliberate assimilation of new elements.
Did he know that any community becomes aggressive, that any faith will be made active, the moment it becomes aware of itself as an organised unity? Did he know that he himself was to make this self-recognition possible to the Church of his forefathers? At any rate, his whole work, from the first, had consisted, according to his own statement, of “a search for the common bases of Hinduism.”
He felt instinctively that to find these and reassert them, was the one way of opening to the Mother-Church the joyous conviction of her own youth and strength. Had not Buddha preached renunciation and Nirvana, and because these were the essentials of the national life, had not India, within two centuries of his death, become a powerful empire? So he, too, would fall Backupon the essentials, and declare them, leaving results to take care of themselves.
He held that the one authority which Hinduism claimed to rest upon, the only guide she proposed to the individual soul, was “spiritual truth.” Those laws of experience that underlie, and give birth to, all scriptures, were what she really meant by the word “Vedas.”
The books called by that name were refused by some of her children – the Jains for example – yet the Jains were none the less Hindus for that. All that is true is Veda, and the Jain is to the full as much bound by his view of truth as any other. For he would extend the sphere of the Hindu Church to its utmost. With her two wings he would cover all her fledglings. “I go forth,” he had said of himself before he left for America the first time, “I go forth, to preach a religion of which Buddhism is nothing but a rebel child, and Christianity, with all her pretensions, only a distant echo!”
Even as books, however, he would claim that the glory of the Vedic scriptures was unique in the history of religion. And this not merely because of their great antiquity; but vastly more for the fact that they, alone amongst all the authoritative books of the world, warned man that he must go beyond all books.
Truth being thus the one goal of the Hindu creeds, and this being conceived of, not as revealed truth to be accepted, but as accessible truth to be experienced, it followed that there could never be any antagonism, real or imagined, between scientific and religious conviction, in Hinduism.
In this fact the Swami saw the immense capacity of the Indian peoples for that organised conception of science peculiar to the modern era. No advance of knowledge had ever been resisted by the religious intellect of India. Nor had the Hindu clergy, – a greater glory still! -ever been known to protest against the right of the individual to perfect freedom of thought and belief. This last fact indeed, giving birth to the doctrine of the Ishta Devata* – the idea that the path of the soul is to be chosen by itself – he held to be the one universal differentia of Hinduism; making it not only tolerant, but absorbent, of every possible form of faith and culture.
Even the temper of sectarianism, characterised by the conviction that God Himself is of the believer’s creed, and his limited group the one true church, and allying itself, as it now and then will, with every statement that man has ever formulated, was regarded by Hinduism, he pointed out, as a symptom, not of falsehood or narrowness, but only of youth. It constituted as Sri Ramakrishna had said, the intellectual fence, so necessary to the seedling, but so inimical to the tree. The very fact that we could impose limitations, was a proof that we were still dealing with the finite. When the cup of experience should be full, the soul would dream only of the Infinite. “All men hedge in the fields of earth, but who can hedge in the sky?” had said the Master.
The vast complexus of systems which made up Hinduism, was in every case based upon the experimental realisation of religion, and characterised by an infinite inclusiveness. The only tests of conformity ever imposed by the priesthood had been social, and while this had resulted in a great rigidity of custom, it implied that to their thinking the mind was eternally free.
But it could not be disputed that the thought-area within Hinduism, as actually realised, had been coloured by the accumulation of a few distinctive ideas, and these were the main subjects of the Swami’s Address before the Parliament of Religions, at Chicago, in 1893.
First of these special conceptions, with which India might be said to be identified, was that of the cyclic character of the cosmos. On the relation of Creator and created, as equal elements in a dualism which can never be more than a relative truth, Hinduism had a profound philosophy, which Vivekananda, with his certainty of grasp, was able to set forth in a few brief words.
The next doctrine which he put forward, as distinctive of Indian thought in general, was that of reincarnation and karma, ending in the manifestation of the divine nature of man. And finally, the universality of truth, whatever the form of thought or worship, completed his enumeration of these secondary differentia.
In a few clear sentences, he had conclusively established the unity, and delineated the salient features, of Hinduism. The remainder of his work in the West was, in the main, a free gift in modern and universal forms, of the great inspirations contained in the Eternal Faith. To him, as a religious teacher, the whole world was India, and man, everywhere, a member of his own fold.
It was on his return to India, in January 1897, that the Swami, in philosophic form, made that contribution to the thought of, his people, which, it has been said elsewhere, is required by India of all her epoch-makers. Hitherto, the three philosophic systems of – Unism, Dualism, and Modified Unism, or Advaita, Dvaita, and Visishtadvaita – had been regarded as offering to the soul, three different ideals of liberation. No attempt had ever before been made to reconcile these schools. On reaching Madras, however, in 1897, Vivekananda boldly claimed that even the utmost realisations of Dualism and Modified Unism, were but stages on the way to Unism itself; and the final bliss, for all alike, was the mergence in One without a second.
It is said that at one of his midday question-classes, a member of his audience asked him why, if this was the truth, it had never before been mentioned by any of the Masters. It was customary to give answers to these questions, first in English and then in Sanskrit, for the benefit of such scholars present as knew no modern language, and the great gathering was startled, on this occasion, to hear the reply “- Because I was born for this, and it was left for me to do!”
In India, the Swami was extremely jealous of any attempt to exclude from Hinduism any of her numerous branches and offshoots. A man was none the less a Hindu, for instance, in his eyes, for being a member of the Brahmo or the Arya Samaj. The great Sikh Khalsa was one of the finest organisations ever created within the Mother-Church, and by her genius. With what ardour he painted for us, again and again, the scene in which Guru Govinda Singh uttered his call to sacrifice!
There were, he held, three different stratifications to be recognised in the Faith. One was that of the old historic Orthodoxy. Another consisted of the reforming sects of the Mohammedan period. And third came the reforming sects of the present period. But all these were equally Hindu. He never forgot that his own longing to consider the problems of his country and his religion on the grand scale, had found its first fulfilment in his youthful membership of the Sadharan Brahmo Samaj.
And he was so far from repudiating this membership, that he one day exclaimed – “It is for them to say whether I belong to them or not! Unless they have removed it, my name stands on their books to this day!” Thus a man was equally Hindu, in his opinion, whether he prefixed to the adjective the modification of Arya, Brahmo, or Orthodox. The claim of the Jain to a place within the fold, was a simple matter of social and historical demonstration. The Jains of Western India would be indignant to this day, if their right to rank as Hindus were seriously questioned. Even now they exchange daughters in marriage, with orthodox houses, of caste correspondent to their own. And even now, their temples are served occasionally by ordinary Brahmins.
The Swami had disciples amongst all faiths, even the Mohammedan, and by the good offices of certain of his Jain friends, he was allowed to read some of their sacred books, not usually accessible, except to members of their own congregations. From this study, he was deeply impressed with the authenticity of their doctrines and traditions, and with the important part which they had played in the evolution of Hinduism.
Indian religion necessarily includes amongst its strongest ideas, a regard for the immanent humanity in dumb animals, and deep devotion to the ascetic ideal of sainthood. These two features had been isolated and emphasised by the Jains. In their clear pronouncements on the Germ Theory, more-over, confirmed as these have been by the researches of modern science, there was evidence sufficient of the intellectual and spiritual stature of the founders of the school. The Jain is obviously right, said the Swami, in claiming that his doctrines were in the first place declared by Rishis.
With regard to the Christianised castes of the present day, the Swami hoped that they would rise in social status by adopting the faith of the dominant political faction, and that in ages to come, when Christianity should be forgotten, they would still be able to maintain this advance.
In this way, we might hope for a future oblivion of the nineteenth century, as a disintegrating force, and the permanent enriching of the Indian system by its contributions. In evidence of the possibility of such a development, was there not the work of Chaitanya in Northern India, and the fact that he had succeeded in forming, for his followers, “a caste of very great respectability?”
Christianity, in her present-day workings, was difficult to pardon. Not so the other non-Hindu faith, Islam. The picture that this name called up to our Master’s mind was always of an eager confraternity, enfranchising the simple and democratising the great. As a factor in the evolution of modern India, he could never for a moment be forgetful of the loyal acceptance, by Islamic intruders, of the old Indian civilisation, and administrative system. Nor could he disregard the service they had done, not only in exalting the social rights of the lowly-born, but also in conserving and developing, in too gentle a race, the ideals of organised struggle and resistance.
He constantly pointed out that Mohammedanism had its fourfold ‘castes’ – Syyed, Pathan, Mogul, and Sheikh – and that of these the Sheikhs had an inherited right to the Indian soil and the Indian memory, as ancient and indisputable as those of any Hindu. He, told a disciple, a propos of an indiscreetly-written word, that “Shah Jehan would have turned in his grave to hear himself called a ‘foreigner.'” And finally, his highest prayer for the good of the Motherland was that she might make manifest the twofold ideal of “an Islamic body and a Vedantic heart.”
Thus – far aloof as he stood from the political significance of such facts, – India, to Vivekananda’s thinking, was a unity, and a unity still more deeply to be apprehended of the heart than of the mind.
His work in the world, as he saw it, was the sowing broadcast of the message of his own Master. But his personal struggles, his personal desires, were bound up in an inextinguishable passion for his country’s good. He never proclaimed nationality, but he was himself the living embodiment of that idea which the word conveys. He, our Master, incarnates for us in his own person, that great mutual love which is the Indian national ideal.
Nothing was less in his mind, be it understood, than a mere revival or restoration of the Indian past. It was to those who sought to bring this about that he had referred, when he said “Like the Egyptologist’s interest in Egypt, their interest in India is a purely selfish one. They would fain see again that India of their books, their studies, and their dreams.” What he himself wanted was to see the strength of that old India finding new application and undreamt-of expression, in the new age. He longed to see “a dynamic religion.”
Why should one select out all the elements of meanness and decadence and reaction, and call them ‘Orthodox’? Orthodoxy was a term too grand, too strong, too vital, for any such use. It would be rightly applied only to that home where all the men were Pandava heroes, and all the women had the greatness of Sita or the fearlessness of Savitri.
He stood aloof from all special questions, whether of conservatism or reform; not because he sympathised with one party more or less than with the other, but because he saw that for both alike the real question was the recapture of the ideal, and its identification with India. On behalf of Woman and the People, alike, he held that the duty required of us was not to change institutions, but to put these in a position to solve their own problems.
At least equal to this dislike of ignorance was his horror of the identification of India with what is known as Occultism. He had the natural interest and curiosity of educated persons, and would at any time have been glad to undergo inconvenience, in order to put to the test alleged cases of walking on water, handling fire, and so on. We all know, however, that evidence regarding such matters is apt to vanish into the merest hearsay, when followed up.
And in any case, such occurrences would have had no significance for him, beyond pointing the simple moral that our present classification of phenomena was incomplete, and must be revised, to include some unfamiliar possibilities. They would have had no supernatural character whatsoever. Few things in the life of Buddha moved him so deeply as the tale of the unfrocking of the monk who had worked a miracle. And he said of the Figure that moves through the Christian Gospels that its perfection would have seemed to him greater, had there been a refusal to gain credence by the “doing of mighty works.”
In this matter, it is probably true as I have heard it pointed out, in later years, by the Swami Sadananda, that there is a temperamental, as well as intellectual, divergence between Eastern and Western Asia, the one always despising, and the other seeking for “a sign.” In this respect, according to Sadananda, the Mongolian and Semitic conceptions are sharply opposed; while the Aryan stands between, weighing the two. However this may be, it will be admitted by many of us that the modern interest in so-called occult phenomena has been largely instrumental in creating a mischievous idea that the Oriental is a being of mysterious nature, remote from the ordinary motives of mankind, and charged with secret batteries of supernatural powers.
All this was hateful to the Swami. He desired to see it understood that India was peopled with human beings, who have indeed an intensely individual character, and a distinctive culture, but who are in all respects men amongst men, with all the duties, claims, and emotions of common humanity.
He, indeed, had the generosity to extend to the West, the same gospel that the Indian sages had preached in the past to the Indian people – the doctrine of the Divinity in man, to be realised by faithful service, through whatever forms. The life of externals, with its concentration of interest in sense-impressions, was, according to him, a mere hypnotism, a dream, of no exalted character. And for Western, as for Eastern, the soul’s quest was the breaking of this dream, the awakening to a more profound and powerful reality.
He was for ever finding new ways to express his belief that all men alike had the same vast potentiality. “Yes! my own life is guided by the enthusiasm of a certain great Personality,” he said once, “but what of that? Inspiration was never filtered out to the world through one man!”
Again he said. “It is true that I believe Ramakrishna Paramahamsa to have been inspired. But then I am myself inspired also. And you are inspired. And your disciples will be; and theirs after them; and so on, to the end of time!
And on another occasion, to one who questioned him about the old rule of the teachers, that truth should be taught only to those of proved and tested fitness, he exclaimed impatiently, “Don’t you see that the age for esoteric interpretations is over? For good or for ill, that day is vanished, never to return. Truth, in the future, is to be open to the world!”
He would speak, with whimsical amusement, of attempts to offer to India religious ideas and organisations which were European-led, as a culminating effort in the long attempt to exploit one race for the good of another. But he never took such European leading seriously, in matters of religion.
Finally, there was no event in the history of his own people to which he returned more constantly than the great Charge of Asoka to his missionaries, in the third century before Christ. “Remember” said the mighty Emperor to those who were to carry the Law to various countries, “Remember that everywhere you will find some root of faith and righteousness. See that you foster this, and do not destroy!”
Asoka had thus dreamt of the whole world, as federated by ideas, – ideas everywhere guided and permeated by the striving towards absolute truth and perfection of conduct. But this dream of Asoka had had to contend with ancient difficulties of communication and transport, with half-known continents and vast diversity of races.
The preliminary steps, therefore, in his world-federation, would necessarily take so long that the primal impulse of faith and energy might in the meantime be forgotten. It must have been from the consideration of this question that the Swami one day looked up, – as we all entered the mountain-pass that lies beyond the village of Kathgodam, – and exclaimed, breaking a long reverie, “Yes! The idea of the Buddhists was one for which only the modern world is ready! None before us has had the opportunity of its realisation!”