MONASTICISM AND MARRIAGE
To the conscience of the Swami, his monastic vows were incomparably precious. To him personally – as to any sincere monk marriage, or any step associated with it, would have been the first of crimes. To rise beyond the very memory of its impulse, was his ideal, and to guard himself and his disciples against the remotest danger of it, his passion. The very fact of un-married-ness counted with him as a spiritual asset.
It follows from all this, that he was accompanied not only by the constant eagerness for monastic perfection, but also by the equally haunting fear, of loss of integrity. And this fear, however salutary or even necessary to his own fulfilment of the ideal, did undoubtedly, for many years, come between him and the formulation of an ultimate philosophy, on this most important subject.
It must be understood, however, that his dread was not of woman, but of temptation. As disciples, as co-workers, and even as comrades and playfellows, he was much associated with women, the world over. It happened almost always that he followed the custom of the Indian villages with these friends of his wanderings, and gave them some title of family relationship. In one place he found a group of sisters, elsewhere a mother, a daughter, and so on.
Of the nobility of these, and their freedom from false or trivial ideas, he would sometimes boast; for he had in its highest degree that distinction of fine men, to seek for greatness and strength, instead of their opposites, in women. To see girls, as he had seen them in America, boating, swimming, and playing games, “without once,” in his own phrase, “remembering that they were not boys,” delighted him. He worshipped that ideal of purity which they thus embodied for him.
In the monastic training, he laid constant emphasis on the necessity of being neither man nor woman, because one had risen above both. Anything, even politeness, that emphasised the idea of sex, was horrible to him. The thing that the West calls ‘chivalry’ appeared to him as an insult to woman. The opinion of some writers that woman’s knowledge ought not to be too exact, nor man’s to be too sympathetic, would have sounded, in his neighbourhood, like a pitiful meanness. The effort of all alike must be the overcoming of such limitations, imposed on a defiant human spirit by our physical constitution.
The ideal of the life of the student, with its mingling of solitude, austerity, and intense concentration of thought, is known in India as brahmacharya. “Brahmacharya should be like a burning fire within the veins!” said the Swami. Concentration upon subjects of study, incidental to student-hood, was to him only one form of that negation of personal in impersonal, which to his thinking formed so inevitable a part of all great lives, that for its sake he was even tempted to admire Robespierre, in his fanaticism of the Terror.
The worship of Saraswati, – by which he meant perfect emotional solitude and self-restraint -he believed with his whole heart to be an essential preparation for any task demanding the highest powers, whether of heart, mind, or body.
Such worship had been recognised in India for ages, as part of the training of the athlete, and the significance of this fact was that a man must dedicate all the force at his disposal, if he were now and again to reach that height of superconscious insight, which appears to others as illumination, inspiration, or transcendent skill. Such illumination was as necessary to the highest work in art or science, as in religion. No man who was spending himself in other ways selfish or ignoble, could ever have painted a great Madonna, or enunciated the Laws of Gravitation.
The civic ideal called as loudly for monastic devotion as the spiritual. The vows of celibacy meant renunciation of the private for the public good. Thus he saw that true manhood could not be, without control of manhood; that the achievement of real greatness, by whatever path, meant always the superiority of the soul to the personal impulse; and finally, that the great monk was also potentially the great worker or great citizen.
That he was equally clear as to the converse of this, – as, for instance, that great wifehood or great citizenship can only be, where nunhood or monasticism might have been – I cannot say. I think that perhaps his own life, of monk and guide of monastic aspirants, hid from him this great truth, except in flashes, until the end came, and his summary of conclusions was complete. “It is true,” he said once, “that there are women whose very presence makes a man feel driven to God. But there are equally others, who drag him down to hell.”
At his side, it was impossible to think with respect of a love that sought to use, to appropriate, to bend to its own pleasure or good, the thing loved. Instead of this, love, to be love at all, must be a welling benediction, a free gift, “without a reason,” and careless of return. This was what he meant, by his constant talk of “loving without attachment.”
Once, indeed, on his return from a journey, he told some of us that he had now realised that the power to attach oneself was quite as important as that of detachment. Each must be instantaneous, complete, whole-hearted. And each was only the complement of the other. “Love is always a manifestation of bliss,” he said in England, “the least shadow of pain falling upon it, is always a sign of physicality and selfishness.”
Furthest of all from his admiration were the puling literature and vitiated art that see human beings primarily as bodies to be possessed, and only in the second place as mind and spirit, eternal in self-mastery and inner freedom. Much, though not all, of our Western idealism, seemed to him to be deeply tainted with this spirit, which he always spoke of as “hiding a corpse beneath flowers.”
The ideal of wifehood he thought of, in Eastern fashion, as an unwavering flame of devotion to one alone. Western customs he may have regarded as polyandrous, for I find it difficult otherwise to account for his statement that he had seen women as great and pure amongst polyandrous peoples, as in the home of his birth. He had travelled in Malabar, but not in Thibet; and in Malabar, as one learns by enquiry, the so-called polyandry is really only matriarchal marriage. The husband visits the wife in her own home, and marriage is not necessarily for life, as in the rest of India; but two men are not received on an equal footing, at the same time. In any case, he had learnt, he said, that “custom was nothing,” that use and wont could never altogether thwart or limit human development. He knew that in any country and any race the ideal might shine forth through individuals in all its fullness.
He never attacked a social ideal. He told me, a day or two before I landed in England, on my return there in 1899, that I must take Backwhile in the West, as though I had never dropped them, the social ideals of Europe. To him, in Europe or America, the married woman was not less in honour than the unmarried. Some missionaries on board the ship, during this voyage, were displaying silver wedding-bracelets bought from Tamil women in the stress of famine; and the talk ran on the superstitious dislike of wives, East and West, to the removal of the wedding-ring from finger or wrist. “You call it a superstition?” exclaimed the Swami, in low pained tones of astonishment, “You cannot see the great ideal of chastity, behind?”*
The institution of marriage, however, was always seen by him in its relation to the ideal of spiritual freedom. And freedom, in the Eastern sense, must be understood, not as the right to do, but the right to refrain from doing – that highest inaction which transcends all action. “Against marriage, in order to rise beyond marriage,” he admitted one day, in argument, “I have nothing to say.”
The perfect marriage was, to his thinking, of the type that he had seen in his Master, in his brother Yogananda, and in his disciple Swarupananda. And these were what would in other
* The chastity of the wife, as Hindus think of it, is a word that connotes not only faithfulness to one alone, but also unwearying faithfulness. In this ideal, there is no room for the slightest fluctuation of distaste.
countries have been regarded as merely nominal. “You see there is a difference of outlook on this point!” he said once, discussing the question. “The West regards marriage as consisting in all that lies beyond the legal tie, while in India it is thought of as a bond thrown by society round two people, to unite them together for all eternity. Those two must wed each other, whether they will or not, in life after life. Each acquires half of all the merit of the other. And if one seems in this life to have fallen hopelessly behind, it is for the other only to wait and beat time, till he or she catches up again!”
Sri Ramakrishna, it was said, had always referred to marriage as a special, and to the monastic life as a universal, service. In this he was, one supposes, alluding only to marriages of the very highest type. And this was clearly the determining concept of celibacy or brahmacharya, in the Swami’s own mind. He called souls to take this vow as if he were calling them to the most honourable of warfare. He regarded a monastic order as “an army” behind a leader, and the teacher whose followers were all citizens and house-holders, as without an army. There could be no comparison, in his mind, between the strength of a cause that had, and one that had not, this support.
Yet in marriage itself, he was not wholly unable to see a career for the soul. I can never forget his story of an old couple who were separated, after fifty years of companionship, at the doors of the workhouse. “What!” exclaimed the old man, at the close of the first day, “Can’t I see Mary and kiss her before she goes to sleep? Why, I haven’t missed doing that at night, for fifty years!”
“Think of it!” said the Swami, glowing with the thought of an achievement so high, “Think of it! Such self-control and steadiness as that, ARE mukti! Marriage itself had been the path for those two souls!
He held with unfaltering strength, that the freedom to refrain from marriage, if she wished, ought to be considered as a natural right of woman. A child, whose exclusive leaning to the devotional life was already strongly marked before she was twelve, had once appealed to him for protection against proposals of alliance that were being made by her family. And he, by using his influence with her father, and suggesting increased dowers for the younger daughters, had been successful in aiding her. Years had gone by, but she was still faithful to the life she had adopted, with its long hours of silence and retirement; and all her younger sisters were now wedded. To force such a spirit into marriage would in his eyes have been a desecration.
He was proud, too, to count up the various classes, – of child-widows, wives of kulin Brahmins, rare cases of the undowered and so on – who represent the unmarried woman in Hindu society.
He held that the faithfulness of widows was the very pillar on which social institutions rested. Only he would have liked to declare as high an ideal for men as for women in this respect. The old Aryan conception of marriage, symbolised in the fire lighted at marriage, and worshipped morning and evening by husband and wife together, pointed to no inequality of standards or responsibilities as between the two. Rama, in the epic of Valmiki, had been as true to Sita, as Sita to him.
The Swami was not unaware of the existence of social problems, in connection with marriage, in all parts of the world. “These unruly women,” he exclaims, in the course of a lecture in the West, “from whose minds the words ‘bear and forbear’ are gone for ever!” He could admit, also, when continuance in a marriage would involve treachery to the future of humanity, that separation was the highest and bravest course for husband or wife to take. In India he would constantly point out that Oriental and Occidental ideals needed to be refreshed by one another. He never attacked social institutions as such, holding always that they had grown up out of a desire to avoid some evil which their critic was possibly too headstrong to perceive. But he was not blind to the over-swing of the pendulum, in one direction or the other.
“There is such pain in this country!” he said one day in India, speaking of marriage by arrangement instead of by choice. “Such pain! Some, of course there must always have been. But now the sight of Europeans, with their different customs, has increased it. Society knows that there is another way!”
“We have exalted motherhood, and you wifehood,” he said again, to a European, “and I think both might gain by some interchange.”
Again, there was the dream that he recounted on board ship, “in which I heard two voices discussing the marriage-ideals of the East and the West, and the conclusion of the whole was, that there was something in each, with which as yet, the world could ill afford to part.” It was this conviction that led him to spend so much time examining in- to differences of social ideals, as between East and West.
“In India,” he said, “the wife must not dream of loving even a son as she loves her husband. She must be Sati. But the husband ought not to love his wife as he does his mother. Hence a reciprocated affection is not thought so high as one unreturned. It is ‘shopkeeping.’ The joy of the contact of husband and wife is not admitted in India. This we have to borrow from the West. Our ideal needs to be refreshed by yours. And you, in turn, need something of our devotion to motherhood.”
But the overwhelming thought that his very presence carried home to the mind was of the infinite superiority of that life which seeks only the freedom of the soul and the service of all, to that which looks for comfort and the sweetness of home. He knew well enough the need that great workers may feel of being encircled by subordinated human lives. “You need not mind,” he said once, turning to a disciple with great tenderness and compassion, “You need not mind, if these shadows of home and marriage cross your mind sometimes. Even to me, they come now and again!” And again, hearing of an expression of intense loneliness on the part of a friend, he exclaimed. “Every worker feels like that at times!”
But infinite danger lay, to his thinking, in a false exaltation of any social ideal at the risk of jeopardising the eternal supremacy of the super-social. “Never forget to say to all whom you teach,” he charged one of his disciples solemnly, “that like a little fire-fly beside the brightness of the sun, like a grain of sand beside the vastness of Mount Meru, SO is the life of the citizen compared with that of the Sannyasin!”
He knew the danger that lay here, of spiritual pride, and his own means of overcoming this lay in bowing himself down to any one, whether monk or householder, who was disciple and devotee of his own Master, Sri Ramakrishna. But to abate the dictum itself, would have been, in his eyes, to have minimised the ideal, and this he could not do. Instead, he felt that one of the most important responsibilities lying, in the present age, upon the religious orders, was the preaching of monastic ideals even in marriage, in order that the more difficult might always exercise its compelling and restraining force upon the easier, path; and that the false glamour of romance, – obscuring the solitary grandeur and freedom of the soul, as the ultimate aim, in the name of an interesting and absorbing companionship, – might be utterly destroyed.
All the disciples of Ramakrishna believe that marriage is finally perfected by the man’s acceptance of his wife as the mother; and this means, by their mutual adoption of the monastic life. It is a moment of the mergence of the human in the divine, by which all life stands thenceforward changed. The psychological justification of this ideal is said to be the fact that, up to this critical point, the relation of marriage consists in a constant succession of a two-fold impulse, the waxing followed by the waning, of affection. With the abandonment of the external, however, impulse is transcended, and there is no fluctuation. Henceforth the beloved is worshipped in perfect steadfastness of mind.
Yet in dealing with his views on this question, one cannot but remember his utterance on the contrast between Hinduism and Buddhism, that Sunday morning in Kashmir, when we walked under the avenue of poplars, and listened to him as he talked of Woman and of Caste.
“The glory of Hinduism,” he said that day, “lies in the fact that while it has defined ideals, it has never dared to say that any one of these alone was the one true way. In this it differs from Buddhism, which exalts monasticism above all others, as the path that must be taken by all souls to reach perfection.
The story given in the Mahabharata of the young saint who was made to seek enlightenment, first from a married woman, and then from a butcher, is sufficient to show this. ‘By doing my duty’ said each one of these when asked, ‘by doing my duty in my own station, have I attained this knowledge.’ “There is no career then,” he ended, “which might not be the path to God. The question of attainment depends only, in the last resort, on the thirst of the soul.”
Thus the fact that all life is great, only in proportion to its expression of ideal purity, was not, in theory, outside the Swami’s acceptance, however much, as a monk, he shrank from interpretations which might lead to the false claim that marriage was chosen as a means to spirituality. That self-love constantly leads us to such subtle exaltation of our own acts and motives, he was well aware. He had constantly, he told us, met with persons, in Western countries, who urged that their own lives, though indolently passed in the midst of luxury, were without selfishness; that only the claims of duty kept them in the world; that in their affections, they were able to realise renunciation without a struggle.
On all such illusions, he poured out his scorn. “My only answer was,” he said, “that such great men are not born in India! The model in this kind was the great king Janaka, and in the whole of history he occurs but once!” In connection with this particular form of error, he would point out that there are two forms of idealism; one is the worship and exaltation of the ideal itself, the other is the glorification of that which we have already attained. In this second case, the ideal is really subordinated to self.
In this severity, however, there was no cynicism. Those who have read our Master’s work on Devotion, or Bhakti Yoga, will remember there the express statement that the lover always sees the ideal in the beloved. “Cling to this vision!” I have heard of his saying – to a girl whose love for another stood newly-confessed – “As long as you can both see the ideal in one another, your worship and happiness will grow more instead of less.”
Amongst the friends of our Master there was, however, one middle-aged woman who was never satisfied that, in his intensity of monasticism, he was able to do full justice to the sacredness and helpfulness of marriage. She had herself been long a widow, after an unusually blessed experience of married life. Very naturally, therefore, it was to this friend that he turned, when, a few weeks before the end, he arrived at what he knew to be his crowning conviction on this whole subject; and his letter was brought to her in her distant home by the same hand that was carrying also the telegraphic announcement of his death.
In this letter, so solemnly destined, he says: “In my opinion, a race must first cultivate a great respect for motherhood, through the sanctification and inviolability of marriage, before it can attain to the ideal of perfect chastity. The Roman Catholics and the Hindus, holding marriage sacred and inviolate, have produced great chaste men and women of immense power. To the Arab, marriage is a contract, or a forceful possession, to be dissolved at will, and we do not find there the development of the ideal of the virgin, or the brahmacharin. Modern Buddhism, – having fallen among races who have not even yet come up to the evolution of marriage – has made a travesty of monasticism. So, until there is developed in Japan a great and sacred ideal about marriage (apart from mutual attraction and love), I do not see how there can be great monks and nuns. As you have come to see that the glory of life is chastity, so my eyes also have been opened to the necessity of this great sanctification for the vast majority, in order that a few life-long chaste powers may be produced.”
There are some of us who feel that this letter has an even wider-reaching significance than he himself would have thought of ascribing to it. It was the last sentence in the great philosophy which saw “in the Many and the One the same Reality.” If the inviolability of marriage be indeed the school in which a society is made ready for the highest possibilities of the life of solitude and self-control, then the honourable fulfilment of the world’s work is as sacred a means to supreme self-realisation, as worship and prayer.
We have here, then, a law which enables us to understand the discouragement of religious ecstasy, by Ramakrishna Paramahamsa, and his great preference for character, in his disciples. We understand, too, the inner meaning of Vivekananda’s own constant preaching of strength. The reason is very simple. If “the Many and the One be the same Reality, seen by the same mind at different times, and in different attitudes,” then, in three words, Character is Spirituality. “Greatness” really is, as a deep thinker has affirmed, “to take the common things of life, and walk truly amongst them; and holiness a great love and much serving.”
These simple truths may prove after all, to be the very core of the new gospel. And in endorsement of this possibility, we have the Master’s own words “The highest truth is always the simplest.”