AT NAINI TAL AND ALMORA
Persons The Swami Vivekananda; Gurubhais; and disciples.
A party of Europeans, amongst whom were, Dhira Mata, the ‘Steady Mother; ‘One whose name was Jaya’; and Nivedita.
Place :- The Himalayas.
Time :- May 11 to May 25, 1898.
We were a large party, or, indeed, two parties, that left Howrah station on Wednesday evening, and on Friday morning came in sight of the Himalayas. They seemed to rise suddenly out of the plains, a few hundred yards away.
Naini Tal was made beautiful by three things, – the Master’s pleasure in introducing to us his disciple, the Raja of Khetri; the dancing girls who met us and asked us where to find him, and were received by him, inspite of the remonstrances of others; and by the Mohammedan gentleman who said “Swamiji, if in after-times any claim you as an avatar, an especial incarnation of the Deity – remember that I, a Mohammedan, am the first!”
It was here, too, that we heard a long talk on Ram Mohun Roy, in which he pointed out three things as the dominant notes of this teacher’s message, his acceptance of the Vedanta, his preaching of patriotism, and the love that embraced the Mussulman equally with the Hindu. In all these things, he claimed himself to have taken up the task that the breadth and foresight of Ram Mohun Roy had mapped out.
The incident of the dancing girls occurred in consequence of our visit to the two temples at the head of the tarn1, which from time immemorial have been places of pilgrimage, making the beautiful little “Eye Lake” holy. Here, offering worship, we found two nautch-women. When they had finished, they came up to us, and we in broken language, entered into conversation with them. We took them for respectable ladies of the town, and were much astonished, later, at the storm which had evidently passed over the Swami’s audience at his refusal to have them turned away. Am I mistaken in thinking that it was in connection with these dancing-women of Naini Tal that he first told us the story, many times repeated, of the nautch-girl of Khetri? He had been angry at the invitation to see her, but being prevailed upon to come, she sang -“O Lord, look not upon my evil qualities!
Thy name, O Lord, is Same-Sightedness,
Make us both the same Brahman!
One piece of iron is the knife in the hand of the butcher,
And another piece of iron is the image in the temple.
But when they touch the philosopher’s stone,
Both alike turn to gold!
One drop of water is in the sacred Jumna,
And one is foul in a ditch by the roadside.
But when they fall into the Ganges,
Both alike become holy!
So, Lord, look not upon my evil qualities!
Thy name, O Lord, is Same-Sightedness.
Make us both the same Brahman!”
And then, said the Master of himself, the scales fell from his eyes, and seeing that all are indeed one, he condemned no more. [And she whose name is Jaya, heard from another of this same visit, when to the assembled women he spoke words of power that moved all hearts, – full of love and tenderness, without separation and without reproach.]
It was late in the afternoon when we left Naini Tal for Almora, and night overtook us while still travelling through the forest. On and on we went, following the road into deep gullies, and out again, round the shoulders of projecting hill sides, always under the shadow of great trees, and always preceded by torches and lanterns to keep off bears and tigers.
While day lasted we had seen the “rose-forests” and the maiden-hair fern by the spring sides, and the scarlet blossoms on the wild pomegranate bushes; but with nightfall, only the fragrance of these and the honeysuckles was left to us, and we journeyed on, content to know nothing, save silence and starlight, and the grandeur of the mountains – till we reached a quaintly placed dak-bungalow, on the mountain side, in the midst of trees.
There after some time, Swamiji arrived with his party, full of fun, and keen in his appreciation of everything that concerned the comfort of his guests, but full before all, of the poetry of the weird “night scenes” without, the coolies by their fires, and the neighing horses, the Poor Man’s Shelter near, and the whispering trees and solemn blackness of the forest.
From the day that we arrived at Almora the Swami renewed his habit of coming over to us at our early breakfast, and spending some hours in talk. Then and always, he was an exceedingly light sleeper, and I imagine that his visit to us, early as the hour might be, was often paid during the course of his return with his monks from a still earlier walk.
Sometimes, but rarely, we saw him again in the evening, either meeting him when out for a walk, or going ourselves to Capt. Sevier’s where he and his party were staying, and seeing him there. And once he came at that time to call on us.
Into these morning talks at Almora, a strange new element, painful but salutary to remember, had crept. There appeared to be, on one side, a curious bitterness and distrust, and, on the other, irritation and defiance. The youngest of the Swami’s disciples at this time, it must be remembered, was an English woman1, and of how much this fact meant intellectually, – what a strong bias it implied, and always does imply, in the reading of India, what an idealism of the English race and all their deeds and history, – the Swami himself had had no conception till the day after her initiation at the monastery.
Then he had asked her some exultant question, as to which nation she now belonged to, and had been startled to find with what a passion of loyalty and worship she regarded the English-flag, giving to it much of the feeling that an Indian woman would give to her Thakoor. His surprise and disappointment at the moment were scarcely perceptible. A startled look, no more. Nor did his discovery of the superficial way in which this disciple had joined herself with his people in any degree affect his confidence and courtesy during the remaining weeks spent in the plains.
But with Almora, it seemed as if a going-to-school, had commenced, and just as schooling is often disagreeable to the taught, so here, though it cost infinite pain, the blindness of a halfview must be done away. A mind must be brought to change its centre of gravity. It was never more than this; never the dictating of opinion or creed; never more than emancipation from partiality.
1. Here Sister Nivedita is referring to herself, while writing of the temporary turbulence that had crept into her disciple-guru relationship with Swami Vivekananda. These upheavals were not specific to Nivedita alone, but were probably undergone by other disciples as well. The strain was not on account of a flaw in the temperament of either the pupil or the guru; rather it was a process of spiritual transformation which another disciple Sister Christine beautifully explains, in the book Reminiscences of Swami Vivekananda
She writes that when people accepted Vivekananda as their ‘friend’ he would never interfere in their beliefs, or point out their faults to them; but once someone accepted him as their ‘guru’ the relationship changed. Then he felt it his responsibility to “attack foibles, prejudices, valuations” – in other words to destroy false ideas and illusions which his disciples clung to, and thus free them from Maya, so that they may succeed in their quest to realizing the Ultimate Reality (God).
Even at the end of the terrible experience, when this method, as regarded race and country, was renounced, never to be taken up systematically again, the Swami did not call for any confession of faith, any declaration of new opinion. He dropped the whole question. His listener went free. But he had revealed a different standpoint in thought and feeling, so completely and so strongly as to make it impossible for her to rest, until later, by her own labours, she had arrived at a view in which both these partial presentments stood rationalised and accounted for.
“Really, patriotism like yours is sin!” he exclaimed once, many weeks later, when the process of obtaining an uncoloured judgment on some incident had been more than commonly exasperating. “All that I want you to see is that most people’s actions are the expression of self-interest, and you constantly oppose to this the idea that a certain race are all angels. Ignorance so determined is wickedness!”
Another question on which this same disciple showed a most bitter obstinacy was that of the current western estimate of woman. Both these limitations of her sympathy look petty and vulgar enough to her now, as compared with the open and disinterested attitude of the mind that welcomes truth. But at the time they were a veritable lion in the path, and remained so until she had grasped the folly of allowing anything whatever to obscure to her the personality that was here revealing itself.
Once having seen this, it was easy to be passive to those things that could not be accepted, or could not be understood, and to leave to time the formation of ultimate judgments regarding them. In every case it had been some ideal of the past that had raised a barrier to the movement of her sympathy, and surely it is always so. It is the worships of one era which forge the fetters of the next.
These morning talks at Almora then, took the form of assaults upon deep-rooted preconceptions, social, literary, and artistic, or of long comparisons of Indian and European history and sentiments, often containing extended observations of very great value. One characteristic of the Swami was the habit of attacking the abuses of a country or society openly and vigorously when he was in its midst, whereas after he had left it, it would often seem as if nothing but its virtues were remembered by him.
He was always testing his disciples, and the manner of these particular discourses was probably adopted in order to put to the proof the courage and sincerity of one who was both woman and European.