MORNING TALKS AT ALMORA
Time :- May and June 1898.
The first morning, the talk was that of the central ideals of civilization, – in the West, truth, in the East, chastity. He justified Hindu marriage-customs, as springing from the pursuit of this ideal, and from the woman’s need of protection, in combination. And he traced out the relation of the whole subject to the Philosophy of the Absolute.
Another morning he began by observing that as there were four main castes, – Brahman, Kshattriya, Bunea, Sudra, – so there were four great national functions, the religious or priestly, fulfilled by the Hindus, the military, by the Roman Empire; the mercantile by England today; and the democratic, by America in the future. And here he launched off into a glowing prophetic forecast of how America would yet solve the problems of the Sudra, – the problems of freedom and co-operation, – and turned to relate to a non-American listener, the generosity of the arrangements which that people had attempted to make for their aborigines.
Again it would be an eager resume of the history of India or of the Moguls whose greatness never wearied him. Every now and then, throughout the summer, he would break out into descriptions of Delhi and Agra. Once he described the Taj as “a dimness, and again a dimness, and there – a grave!”
Another time, he spoke of Shah Jehan, and then, with a burst of enthusiasm, – “Ah! He was the glory of his line! A feeling for, and discrimination of beauty that are unparalled in history. And an artist himself! I have seen a manuscript illuminated by him, which is one of the art-treasures of India. What a genius!”
Oftener still, it was Akbar of whom he would tell, almost with tears in his voice, and a passion easier to understand, beside that undomed tomb, open to sun and wind, the grave of Secundra at Agra.
But all the more universal forms of human feeling were open to the Master. In one mood he talked of China as if she were the treasure-house of the world, and told us of the thrill with which he saw inscriptions in old Bengali (Kutil?) characters, over the doors of Chinese temples.
Few things could be more eloquent of the vagueness of Western ideas regarding Oriental peoples than the fact that one of his listeners alleged untruthfulness as a notorious quality of that race. As a matter of fact the Chinese are famous in the United States, where they are known as business-men, for their remarkable commercial integrity, developed to a point far beyond that of the Western requirement of the written word. So the objection was an instance of misrepresentation, which, though disgraceful, is nevertheless too common. But in any case the Swami would have none of it.
Untruthfulness! Social rigidity! What were these, except very, very relative terms? And as to untruthfulness in particular, could commercial life, or social life, or any other form of cooperation go on for a day, if men did not trust men? Untruthfulness as a necessity of etiquette? And how was that different from the Western idea? Is the Englishman always glad and always sorry at the proper place? But there is still a difference of degree? Perhaps – but only of degree!
Or he might wander as far afield as Italy, that “greatest of the countries of Europe, land of religion and of art; alike of imperial organization and of Mazzini; – mother of ideas, of culture, and of freedom!”
One day it was Sivaji and the Mahrattas and the year’s wandering as a Sannyasi,1 that won him home to Raigarh. “And to this day,” said the Swami, “authority in India dreads the Sannyasi, lest he conceal beneath his yellow garb another Sivaji.”
Often the enquiry, who and what are the Aryans? – absorbed his attention; and, holding that their origin was complex, he would tell us how in Switzerland he had felt himself to be in China, so like were the types. He believed too that the same was true of some parts of Norway. Then there were scraps of information about countries and physiognomies, an impassioned tale of the Hungarian scholar, who traced the Huns to Tibet, and lies buried in Darjeeling and so on.
It was very interesting throughout this summer, to watch, – not only in the Swami’s case, but in that of all persons who might be regarded as representative of the old Indian culture, -how strong was the fascination exerted by enquiries of this nature. It seemed as if in the intellectual life of the East, questions of race and custom and ethnological origins and potentialities took the place that the observation of international politics might hold in the West. The idea suggested itself that Oriental scholars and statesmen could never ignore this element in their peculiar problems, and would be likely at the same time to bring a very valuable power of discrimination to bear upon it.
Sometimes the Swami would deal with the rift between Brahmins and Kshattriyas, painting the whole history of India as a struggle between the two, and showing that the latter had always embodied the rising, fetter-destroying impulses of the nation. He could give excellent reason too for the faith that was in him – that the Kayasthas of modern Bengal represented the pre-Mauryar Kshattriyas.
He would portray the two opposing types of culture, the one classical, intensive, and saturated with an ever-deepening sense of tradition and custom; the other, defiant, impulsive, and liberal in its out-look. It was part of a deep-lying law of the historic development that Rama, Krishna, and Buddha had all arisen in the kingly, and not in the priestly caste. And in this paradoxical moment, Buddhism was reduced to a caste-smashing formula – “a religion invented by the Kshattriyas” as a crushing rejoinder to Brahminism!
That was a great hour indeed, when he spoke of Buddha; for, catching a word that seemed to identify him with its anti-Brahminical spirit, an uncomprehending listener said, “Why Swami, I did not know that you were a Buddhist!” “Madam,” he said rounding on her, his whole face aglow with the inspiration of that name, “I am the servant of the servants of the servants of Buddha.
Who was there ever like Him? – The Lord – who never performed one action for Himself -with a heart that embraced the whole world! So full of pity that He – prince and monk – would give His life to save a little goat! So loving that He sacrificed himself to the hunger of a tigress! – to the hospitality of a pariah and blessed him! And He came into my room when I was a boy and I fell at His feet! For I knew it was the Lord Himself!”
Many times he spoke of Buddha in this fashion, sometimes at Belur and sometimes afterwards. And once he told us the story of Ambapali, the beautiful courtesan who feasted Him, in words that re-called the revolt of Rossetti’s great half-sonnet of Mary Magdalene:-
“Oh loose me! Seest thou not my Bridegroom’s face,
That draws me to him? For his feet my kiss,
My hair, my tears, He craves to-day: – And oh!
What words can tell what other day and place Shall see me clasp those blood stained feet of His?
He needs me, calls me, loves me, let me go!”
But national feeling did not have it all its own way. For one morning when the chasm seemed to be widest, there was a long talk on bhakti – that perfect identity with the Beloved that the devotion of Raya Ramananda the Bengali nobleman before Chaitanya so beautifully illustrates –
“Four eyes met. There were changes in two souls.
And now I cannot remember whether he is a man And I a woman, or he a woman and I a man!
All I know is, there were two, Love came, and there is one!”
It was that same morning that he talked of the Babists of Persia, – in their era of martyrdom -of the woman who inspired and the man who worshipped and worked. And doubtless then he expatiated on that theory of his – somewhat quaint and surprising to unaccustomed minds, not so much for the matter of the statement, as for the explicitness of the expression, – of the greatness and goodness of the young, who can love without seeking personal expression for their love, and their high potentiality.
Another day coming at sunrise when the snows could be seen, dawn-lighted, from the garden, it was Siva and Uma on whom he dwelt, – and that was Siva, up there, the white snow-peaks, and the light that fell upon Him was the Mother of the World! For a thought on which at this time he was dwelling much was that God is the Universe, – not within it, or outside it, and not the universe God or the image of God – but He it, and the All.
Sometimes all through the summer he would sit for hours telling us stories, those cradle-tales of Hinduism, whose function is not at all that of our nursery fictions, but much more, like the man-making myths of the old Hellenic world. Best of all these I thought was the story of Suka, and we looked on the Siva-mountains and the bleak scenery of Almora the evening we heard it for the first time.
Suka, the typical Paramahamsa, refused to be born for fifteen years, because he knew that his birth would mean his mother’s death.* Then his father appealed to Uma, the Divine mother. She was perpetually tearing down the veil of Maya before the hidden Saint, and Vyasa pleaded that She should cease this, or his son would never come to birth.
Uma consented, for one moment only and that moment the child was born. He came forth a young man sixteen years of age, unclothed, and went straight forward, knowing neither his father nor his mother, straight on, followed by Vyasa.
* The reader may question this version of the story of Suka. But the Sister Nivedita, as far as we can
Then, coming round a mountain-pass his body melted away from him, because it was no different from the universe, and his father following and crying, “Oh my son! Oh my son!” was answered only by the echo, “Om! Om! Om!” – among the rocks.
Then Suka resumed his body, and came to his father to get knowledge from him. But Vyasa found that he had none for him, and sent him to Janaka, king of Mithila, the father of Sita, if perchance he might have some to give. Three days he sat outside the royal gates, unheeded, without a change of expression or of look. The fourth day he was suddenly admitted to the king’s presence with eclat. Still there was no change.
Then as a test, the powerful sage who was the king’s prime minister, translated himself into a beautiful woman, so beautiful that everyone present had to turn away from the sight of her, and none dared speak. But Suka went up to her and drew her to sit beside him on his mat, while he talked to her of God.
Then the minister turned to Janaka saying, “Know, oh King, if you seek the greatest man on earth, this is he!”
“There is little more told of the life of Suka. He is the ideal Paramahamsa. To him alone amongst men was it given to drink a handful of the waters of that one undivided Ocean of Sat-Chit-Ananda – existence, knowledge and bliss absolute! Most saints die, having heard only the thunder of Its waves upon the shore. A few gain the vision – and still fewer, taste of It. But he drank of the Sea of Bliss!”
Suka was indeed the Swami’s saint. He was the type, to him, of that highest realisation to which life and the world are merely play. Long after, we learned how Sri Ramakrishna had spoken of him in his boyhood as, “My Suka.” And never can I forget the look, as of one gazing far into depths of joy, with which he once stood and quoted the words of Siva, in praise of the deep spiritual significance of the Bhagavad-Gita, and of the greatness of Suka -“I know, the real meaning of the teachings of the Bhagavad-Gita and Suka knows, and perhaps Vyasa knows – a little!
Another day in Almora the Swami talked of the great humanising lives, that had arisen in Bengal, at the long inrolling wash of the first wave of modern consciousness on the ancient shores of Hindu culture. Of Ram Mohun Roy we had already heard from him at Naini Tal. And now of the Pundit Vidyasagar he exclaimed “There is not a man of my age in Northern India, on whom his shadow has not fallen!” It was a great joy to him to remember that these men and Sri Ramakrishna had all been born within a few miles of each other.
The Swami introduced Vidyasagar to us now as “the hero of widow re-marriage, and of the abolition of polygamy.” But his favourite story about him was of that day when he went home from the Legislative Council, pondering over the question of whether or not to adopt English dress on such occasions.
Suddenly someone came up to a fat Mogul who was proceeding homewards in leisurely and pompous fashion, in front of him, with the news “Sir, your house is on fire!” The Mogul went neither faster nor slower for this information, and presently the messenger contrived to express a discreet astonishment.
Whereupon his master turned on him angrily, “Wretch!” he said, “Am I to abandon the gait of my ancestors, because a few sticks happen to be burning?” And Vidyasagar, walking behind, determined to stick to the chudder, dhoti and sandals, not even adopting coat and slippers.
The picture of Vidyasagar going into retreat for a month for the study of the Shastras, (Scriptures), when his mother had suggested to him the re-marriage of child-widows, was very forcible. “He came out of his retirement of opinion that they were not against such remarriage, and he obtained the signatures of the pundits that they agreed in this opinion. Then the action of certain native princes led the pundits to abandon their own signatures, so that, had the Government not determined to assist the movement, it could not have been carried and – now,” added the Swami, “the difficulty has an economic rather than a social basis.”
We could believe that a man who was able to discredit polygamy by moral force alone, was “intensely spiritual.” And it was wonderful indeed to realise the Indian indifference to a formal creed, when we heard how this giant was driven by the famine of 1864, – when 140,000 people died of hunger and disease, – to have nothing more to do with God, and become entirely agnostic in thought.
With this man, as one of the educators of Bengal, the Swami coupled the name of David Hare, the old Scotsman and atheist to whom the clergy of Calcutta refused Christian burial. He had died of nursing an old pupil through cholera. So his own boys carried his dead body and buried it in a swamp, and made the grave a place of pilgrimage. That place has now become College Square, the educational centre and his school is now within the University. And to this day, Calcutta students make pilgrimage to the tomb.
On this day we took advantage of the natural turn of the conversation to cross-question the Swami as to the possible influence that Christianity might have exerted over himself. He was much amused to hear that such a statement had been hazarded, and told us with much pride of his only contact with missionary influences, in the person of his old Scotch master, Mr. Hastie.
This hot-headed old man lived on nothing, and regarded his room as his boy’s home as much as his own. It was he who had first sent the Swami to Sri Ramakrishna, and towards the end of his stay in India he used to say “Yes my boy, you were right, you were right! – It is true that all is God!” “I am proud of him!” – cried the Swami “but I don’t think you could say that he had Christianised me much!” It appeared, indeed, that he had only been his pupil for some six months, having attended college so irregularly that the Presidency College refused to send him up for his degree, though he undertook to pass!
We heard charming stories, too, on less serious subjects. There was the lodging-house in an American city for instance, where he had had to cook his own food, and where he would meet, in the course of operations, “an actress who ate roast turkey every day, and a husband and wife who lived by making ghosts”. And when the Swami remonstrated with the husband, and tried to persuade him to give up deceiving people, saying “You ought not to do this!” the wife would come up behind, and say eagerly “Yes Sir! That’s just what I tell him; for he makes all the, ghosts, and Mrs. Williams takes all the money!”
He told us also of a young engineer, an educated man, who, at a spiritualistic gathering, “when the fat Mrs. Williams appeared from behind the screen as his thin mother, exclaimed Mother dear, how you have grown in the spirit-world!”
“At this,” said the Swami, “my heart broke, for I thought there could be no hope for the man.” But never at a loss, he told the story of a Russian painter, who was ordered to paint the picture of a peasant’s dead father, the only description given being, “Man! don’t I tell you he had a wart on his nose?” When at last, therefore, the painter had made a portrait of some stray peasant, and affixed a large wart to the nose, the picture was declared to be ready, and the son was told to come and see it. He stood in front of it, greatly overcome, and said “Father! Father! how changed you are since I saw you last!”
After this, the young engineer would never speak to the Swami again, which showed at least that he could see the point of a story. But at this, the Hindu monk was genuinely astonished.
In spite of such general interests, however, the inner strife1 grew high, and the thought pressed on the mind of one of the older members of our party that the Master himself needed service and peace. Many times he spoke with wonder of the torture of life, and who can say how many signs there were, of bitter need? A word or two was spoken – little, but enough – and he, after many hours, came Backand told us that he longed for quiet, and would go alone to the forests and find soothing.
And then, looking up, he saw the young moon shining above us, and he said “The Mohammedans think much of the new moon. Let us also, with the new moon, begin a new life!” And he blessed his daughter1 with a great blessing, so that she, thinking that her old relationship was broken, nor dreaming that a new and deeper life was being given to it, knew only that the hour was strange and passing sweet.
And so that strife was ended, and for all views and opinions of the Swami, there was room made thenceforth, that they might be held and examined, and determined on at leisure, however impossible or unpleasing they might seem at the first.
He went. It was Wednesday and on Saturday he came back. He had been in the silence of the forests ten hours each day, but on returning to his tent in the evenings, he had been surrounded with so much eager attendance as to break the mood, and he had fled. Yes, he was radiant. He had discovered in himself the old-time sannyasi, able to go barefoot, and endure heat, cold, and scanty fare unspoilt by the West. This, and what else he had got, was enough for the present, and we left him, under the eucalyptus trees, and amongst the tea-roses, in Mr. Sevier’s garden, full of gratitude and peace.
The following Monday he went away, with his host and hostess, on a week’s visit, and we were left in Almora to read, and draw, and botanise.
One evening in that week, we sat talking after dinner. Our thoughts were curiously with the ‘In Memoriam’, and one of us read aloud –
“Yet in these ears, till hearing dies,
One set slow bell will seem to toll The passing of the sweetest soul That ever looked with human eyes.
1. Sister Nivedita considered herself as the spiritual daughter of Swami Vivekananda. In her book,
The Master as I Saw Him“, she writes: “In my own case the position ultimately taken proved that most happy one of a spiritual daughter, and as such I was regarded by all the Indian people and communities, whom I met during my Master’s life.”
I hear it now, and o’er and o’er,
Eternal greetings to the dead;
And ‘Ave, Ave, Ave,’ said,
‘Adieu, Adieu,’ for evermore.”
It was the very hour at which, in the distant south, one soul of our own circle was passing out of this little church visible of ours, into some finer radiance and more triumphant manifestation, perhaps, in the closer presence possible beyond. But we did not know it yet.
Still another day the dark shadow of, we knew not what hung over us. And then, as we sat working on Friday morning, the telegram came, a day late that said – “Goodwin died last night at Ootacamund.” Our poor friend had, it appeared, been one of the first victims of what was to prove an epidemic of typhoid fever. And it seemed that with his last breath he had spoken of the Swami, and longed for his presence by his side.
On Sunday evening, the Swami came home. Through our gate and over the terrace his way brought him and there we sat and talked with him a moment. He did not know our news but a great darkness hung over him already, and presently he broke the silence to remind us of that saint who had called the cobra’s bite “messenger from the Beloved,” one whom he had loved, second only to Sri Ramakrishna himself. “I have just,” he said, “received a letter that says: Pavhari Baba has completed all his sacrifices with the sacrifice of his own body. He has burnt himself in his sacrificial fire.” “Swami! exclaimed someone from amongst his listeners, “wasn’t that very wrong?”
“How can I tell?” said the Swami, speaking in great agitation. “He was too great a man for me to judge. He knew himself what he was doing.”
Very little was said after this, and the party of monks passed on. Not yet had the other news been broken.
Next morning he came early, in a great mood. He had been up, he said afterwards, since four. And one went out to meet him, and told him, of Mr. Goodwin’s death. The blow fell quietly. Some days later, he refused to stay in the place where he had received it, and complained of the weakness that brought the image of his most faithful disciple constantly into his mind. It was no more manly, he protested, to be thus ridden by one’s memory, than to retain the characteristics of the fish or the dog. Man must conquer this illusion, and know that the dead are here beside us and with us, as much as ever. It is their absence and separation that are a myth. And then he would break out again with some bitter utterance against the folly of imagining Personal Will to guide the universe.
“As if,” he exclaimed, “it would not be one’s right and duty to fight such a God and slay Him, for killing Goodwin! – And Goodwin, if he had lived, could have done so much!” And in India one was free to recognise this as the most religious, because the most unflinchingly truthful, mood of all!
And while I speak of this utterance, I may perhaps put beside it another, that I heard a year later, spoken out of the same fierce wonder at the dreams with which we comfort ourselves. “Why!” he said, then, “Every petty magistrate and officer is allowed his period of retirement and rest. Only God, The Eternal Magistrate, must sit judging for ever, and never go free!”
But in these first hours, the Swami was calm about his loss, and sat down and chatted quietly with us. He was full that morning of bhakti passing into asceticism, the divine passion that carries the soul on its high tides, far out of reach of persons, yet leaves it again, struggling to avoid those sweet snares of personality.
What he said that morning of renunciation proved a hard gospel to one of those who listened, and when he came again she put it to him as her conviction that to love without attachment involved no pain, and was in itself ideal.
He turned on her with a sudden solemnity. “What is this idea of bhakti without renunciation?” he said. “It is most pernicious!” and standing there for an hour or more, he talked of the awful self-discipline that one must impose on oneself, if one would indeed be unattached, of the requisite nakedness of selfish motives, and of the danger that at any moment the most flower-like soul might have its petals soiled with the grosser stains of life. He told the story of an Indian nun who was asked when a man could be certain of safety on this road, and who sent back, for answer, a little plate of ashes. For the fight against passion was long and fierce, and at any moment the conqueror might become the conquered.
And as he talked, it seemed that this banner of renunciation was the flag of a great victory, that poverty and self-mastery were the only fit raiment for the soul that would wed the Eternal Bridegroom, and that life was a long opportunity for giving, and the thing not taken away from us was to be mourned as lost. Weeks afterwards, in Kashmir, when he was again talking in some kindred fashion, one of us ventured to ask him if the feeling he thus roused were not that worship of pain that Europe abhors as morbid.
“Is the worship of pleasure, then, so noble?” was his immediate answer. “But indeed,” he added, after a pause, “we worship neither pain nor pleasure. We seek through either to come at that which transcends them both.”
This Thursday morning there was a talk on Krishna. It was characteristic of the Swami’s mind, and characteristic also of the Hindu culture from which he had sprung, that he could lend himself to the enjoyment and portrayal of an idea one day, that the next would see submitted to a pitiless analysis and left slain upon the field. He was a sharer to the full in the belief of his people that, provided an idea was spiritually true and consistent, it mattered very little about its objective actuality. And this mode of thought had first been suggested to him, in his boyhood, by his own Master. He had mentioned some doubt as to the authenticity of a certain religious history. “What!” said Sri Ramakrishna, “do you not then think that those who could conceive such ideas must have been the thing itself?”
The existence of Krishna, then, like that of Christ, he often told us ‘in the general way’ he doubted. Buddha and Mahommed alone, amongst religious teachers, had been fortunate enough to have ‘enemies as well as friends’, so that their historical careers were beyond dispute. As for Krishna, he was the most shadowy of all. A poet, a cowherd, a great ruler, a warrior, and a sage had all perhaps been merged in one beautiful figure, holding the Gita in his hand.
But to-day, Krishna was “the most perfect of the avatars.” And a wonderful picture followed, of the charioteer who reined in his horses, while he surveyed the field of battle and in one brief glance noted the disposition of the forces, at the same moment that he commenced to utter to his royal pupil the deep spiritual truths of the Gita.
And indeed as we went through the country-sides of northern India this summer, we had many chances of noting how deep this Krishna-myth had set its mark upon the people. The songs that dancers chanted as they danced, in the roadside hamlets, were all of Radha and Krishna. And the Swami was fond of a statement, as to which we, of course, could have no opinion, that the Krishna worshippers of India had exhausted the possibilities of the romantic motive in lyric poetry.
Is that curious old story of the Gopis, then, really a fragment of some pastoral worship, absorbed by a more modern system, and persistently living on, in all its dramatic tenderness and mirth, into the glare of the nineteenth century?
But throughout these days, the Swami was fretting to be away and alone. The place where he had heard of Mr. Goodwin’s loss was intolerable to him, and letters to be written and received constantly renewed the wound. He said one day that Sri Ramakrishna, while seeming to be all bhakti was really, within, all jnana; but he himself, apparently all jnana, was full of bhakti, and that thereby he was apt to be as weak as any woman.
One day he carried off a few faulty lines of someone’s writing, and brought Backa little poem, which was sent to the widowed mother, as his memorial of her son.
Requiescat in Pace! 1
Speed forth, O soul! upon thy star-strewn path,
Speed, blissful one, where thought is ever free,
Where time and sense no longer mist the view,
Eternal peace and blessings be on thee!
Thy service true, complete thy sacrifice,
Thy home the heart of love transcendent find,
Remembrance sweet, that tells all space and time,
Like altar-roses, fill thy place behind.
Thy bonds are broke, thy quest in bliss is found.
And – one with that which comes as Death and Life, -Thou helpful one! unselfish e’er on earth,
Ahead, still aid with love this world of strife.
And then, because there was nothing left of the original, and he feared that she who was corrected (because her lines had been “in three metres”) might be hurt, he expatiated, long and earnestly upon the theme that it was so much greater to feel poetically than merely to string syllables together in rhyme and metre! He might be very severe on a sympathy or an opinion that seemed in his eyes sentimental or false. But an effort that failed found always in the Master its warmest advocate and tenderest defence.
And how happy was that acknowledgment of the bereaved mother to him when, in the midst of her sorrow she wrote and thanked him for the character of his influence over the son who had died so far away!
It was our last afternoon at Almora that we heard the story of the fatal illness of Sri Ramakrishna. Dr. Mohendra Lall Sirkar had been called in, and had pronounced the disease to be cancer of the throat, leaving the young disciples with many warnings as to its infectious nature. Half an hour later, “Noren”, as he then was, came in and found them huddled together, discussing the dangers of the case. He listened to what they had been told, and then, looking down, saw at his feet the cup of gruel that had been partly taken by Sri Ramakrishna and which must have contained in it, the germs of the fatal discharges of mucous and pus, as it came out in his baffled attempts to swallow the thing, on account of the stricture of the food-passage in the throat. He picked it up, and drank from it, before them all. Never was the infection of cancer mentioned amongst the disciples again.