XIX THE SWAMI’S ESTIMATE OF HISTORIC CHRISTIANITY
Some of the deepest convictions of our lives are gathered from data which, in their very nature, can influence no one but ourselves. The instantaneous estimate of a motive or a personality, for instance, cannot be communicated, in its vividness, to any other, yet remains irresistible to the mind that makes it.
It may be either true or false, that is to say, it may be based on a subtle species of observation, possible only to a few; or it may be only a vagrant impulse of emotion. Be this as it may, the strong subjective impression will colour much of the subsequent thought of him who has experienced it, and will appear to others as wisdom or caprice, according to its good or ill-luck, in coinciding with fact.
In the same way, if, for the sake of the argument, we grant the truth of the theory of reincarnation, it immediately becomes conceivable that some minds may enjoy occasional access within themselves to stores of sub-conscious memory, in which others have no share. If so, it is just possible that the results of such an excursus might furnish clues of some value, even though the difference between it and pure imagination could only be appreciated by the exploring mind itself.
Some such train of thought is necessary, if one is to visualise no less than three striking subjective experiences, which exerted an undoubted influence over my Master’s mind and thought.
Chief of these probably, was that vision of an old man on the banks of the Indus, chanting Vedic riks, from which he had learnt his own peculiar method of intoning Sanskrit – a method much closer to that of Gregorian plainsong than is the ordinary singing of the Vedas.
In this, he always believed himself to have recovered the musical cadences of the Aryan ancestors. He found something remarkably sympathetic to this mode in the poetry of Sankaracharya, and this fact he expressed, by saying that that master must have had a vision like his own, in which he had caught “the rhythm of the Vedas.”
The Swami Saradananda says that this vision occurred about two years after Sri Ramakrishna had passed away, probably in January 1888. The passage which he heard was that Salutation to Gayatri which begins “O come, Thou Effulgent!”
It is a great happiness to know that the Swami Abhedananda has learnt and can reproduce this Sanskrit intoning, of the Swami Vivekananda.
Another similar experience had come to him, when he was quite young. It was in the days of his discipleship at Dakshineswar. He was seated at home, in the little room that formed his study, meditating, when suddenly there appeared before him a man tall and largely built, in whose face was a calm so deep and so established, that it seemed to the lad, looking up at him, as if both pain and pleasure had been forgotten during infinite time. The devotee rose from his seat, and prostrated himself before his visitant; then he stood still, lost in an awestruck gaze.
Suddenly it seemed as if the form before him were about to speak. But at this, a fit of terror overcame the boy, and without waiting to hear, he slipped quietly out of the room, and closed the door behind him!
This was the vision to which he had referred, when he spoke of the entrance of Buddha into his room, in his youth. “And I fell at his feet, for I knew it was the Lord Himself.” Nor would it be easy to measure how much of the throbbing energy of his feeling about Buddha, – the conviction of his overwhelming ‘sanity,’ the realisation of his infinite sacrifice and compassion, – was born of that hour in his boyhood, when he had felt that He stood revealed before him.
The third and last of these determining visions, – in so far, at least, as is known to those about him – occurred to the Swami on his way home to India, in January of the year 1897. One gathers that during his travels in Catholic Europe, he had been startled, like others before him, to find the identity of Christianity with Hinduism in a thousand points of familiar detail.
The Blessed Sacrament appeared to him to be only an elaboration of the Vedic prasadum. The priestly tonsure reminded him of the shaven head of the Indian monk; and when he came across a picture of Justinian receiving the Law from two shaven monks, he felt that he had found the origin of the tonsure. He could not but remember that even before Buddhism, India had had monks and nuns, and that Europe had taken her orders from the Thebaid. Hindu ritual had its lights, its incense, and its music. Even the sign of the cross, as he saw it practised reminded him of the touching of different parts of the body, in certain kinds of meditation. And the culmination of this series of observations was reached, when he entered some cathedral, and found it furnished with an insufficient number of chairs, and no pews! Then, at last, he was really at home. Henceforth he could not believe that Christianity was foreign.
Another train of thought that may have prepared him, unconsciously, for the dream I am about to recount, lay in the fact that he had, in America, had a Jewish disciple, by whom he had been introduced into orthodox Jewish society, and led to the more or less careful study of the Talmud. Thus he had a clearer sense of the background of thought, against which S. Paul stood forth, than is at all common.
Still an added factor in his study of Christianity, that is worth remembering, was his familiarity, in America, with the movement known as Christian Science. In examining the birth of religions, he said once, afterwards, that there were three elements of which he thought we must always take account, – doctrine, ritual, and a third, of the nature of magic, or miracle, which most commonly appeared as a movement of healing. The grounds for his inclusion of the last member of this triad, I find partly in his observation of Christian Science and the allied movements, – coupled as this would be with his own conviction that we are now on the eve of a great new synthesis in religion – and partly in his vision itself, which was stamped so vividly on his brain-fibre as to stand in his memory amongst actual living experiences.
It was night, and the ship on which he had embarked at Naples, was still on her way to Port Said, when he had this dream. An old and bearded man appeared before him, saying “Observe well this place that I show to you. You are now in the island of Crete. This is the land in which Christianity began.” In support of this origin of Christianity, the speaker gave two words – one of which was Therapeut& – and showed both to be derived direct from Sanskrit roots.
The Swami frequently spoke of this dream in after years, and always gave the two etymologies; but the other seems* nevertheless, to be lost, beyond recovery. Of therapeut&, the meaning advanced was, sons of the theras, from thera, an elder amongst the Buddhist monks, and putra, the Sanskrit word for son. “The proofs are all here,” added the old man, pointing to the ground, “Dig, and you will find!”
* It is my own belief that the second word was Essene. Bat alas. I cannot remember the Sanskritic derivation! – N.
The Swami woke, feeling that he had had no common dream, and tumbled out on deck, to take the air. As he did so, he met a ship’s officer, turning in from his watch.
‘What is the time?’ he asked him.
“Midnight,” was the answer.
“And where are we?”
“Just fifty miles off Crete!”
This unexpected coincidence startled the Swami, lending inevitable emphasis to the dream itself. The experience now seemed to precipitate elements, that without it, would have lain in his mind meaningless and un-related. He confessed afterwards that up to this time it had never occurred to him to doubt the historic personality of Christ, and that after this, he could never rely upon it. He understood all at once that it was S. Paul alone of whom we could be sure. He saw the meaning of the fact that the Acts of the Apostles was an older record than the Gospels. And he divined that the teaching of Jesus might have originated with the Rabbi Hillel, while the ancient sect of the Nazarenes might have contributed the name and the person, with its beautiful sayings, reverberating out of some unknown antiquity.
But while his vision thus exercised an undeniable influence over his own mind, he would have thought it insanity to offer it as evidence to any other. The function of such an experience, if admitted at all, was to his thinking, subjective alone. He might be led by it to doubt the historic character of Jesus of Nazareth; but he never referred to Crete as the probable birth-place of Christianity. That would be an hypothesis for secular scholarship alone, to prove or disprove.
The admitted historic spectacle of the meeting of Indian and Egyptian elements at Alexandria was the only geographical factor of which he ever spoke. Nor did this intellectual dubiety in any way dim the brightness of his love for the Son of Mary. To Hindu thinking, it is the perfection of the ideal, as ideal, that matters, and not the truth of its setting in space and time.
To the Swami it was only natural, therefore, to refuse, out of reverence, to give his blessing to a picture of the Sistine Madonna, touching the feet of the Divine child, instead; or to say, in answer to an enquirer, “Had I lived in Palestine, in the days of Jesus of Nazareth, I would have washed His feet, not with my tears, but with my heart’s blood!” In this, moreover, he had the explicit sanction of Sri Ramakrishna, whom he had consulted anxiously, in his boyhood, on a similar question, to be answered, “Do you not think that they who could create such things must themselves have been the ideal that they held up for worship?”