Heroic Struggle – Introduction
Suffering is the lot of the world’s best and bravest – yet, for aeons yet – till things are righted, if possible, here – at least it is a discipline which breaks the dream [of worldly existence]. In my sane moments I rejoice for my sufferings. Someone must suffer here; – I am glad it is I, amongst others of nature’s sacrifices.1
Come ye that are heavy laden and lay all your burden on me, and then do whatever you like and be happy and forget that I ever existed2
For the good of the many, for the happiness of the many, great-souled men take their birth; their lives and works are past the ordinary human run, and the method of their preaching is equally marvelous.3
Prophets and saints suffer for the good of humanity. They bestow love and wisdom to the world. They accept suffering willingly throughout their life for the lasting welfare of humanity. All are exemplars of self-sacrifice and renunciation. They come to remove our suffering. Through their love for us, they show us the way that leads to the end of sorrow. Sri Sankaracharya says:
O Lord, with thy nectar-like speech, sweetened by the enjoyment of the elixir-like bliss of Brahman, pure, cooling to a degree, issuing in streams from thy lips as from a pitcher, and delightful to the ear – do thou sprinkle me who am tormented by worldly afflictions as by the tongues of a forest fire. Blessed are those on whom even a passing glance of thy eye lights, accepting them as thine own.4
Swami Vivekananda says, “The purity of these few Paramahamsas is all that holds the world together. If they should all die out and leave it, the world would go to pieces.”5 In the Bhagavad-Gita Lord Krishna says to Arjuna:
Whatsoever the superior person does, that is also followed by others; What standard he or she demonstrates by action, people follow that.
I have, O Partha, no duty, nothing that I have not gained, and nothing that I have yet to gain, in the three worlds; Yet, I do continue in action.
If ever I did not continue to work without any relaxation, O Partha Men and women would, in every way follow my example.6
God’s messengers have always been misunderstood, persecuted, and tormented. They suffered more than others did. Swami Vivekananda says:
The great Prophets were giants – they bore a gigantic world on their shoulders. Compared with them we are pygmies, no doubt, yet we are doing the same task; in our little circles, our little homes, we are bearing our little crosses. There is no one so evil, no one so worthless, but he has to bear his own cross. But with all our mistakes, with all our evil thoughts and evil deeds, there is a bright spot somewhere, there is still somewhere the golden thread through which we are always in touch with the divine.7
The lives of the prophets testify to the Divine love and truth that transforms people when they go astray. Swami Vivekananda was a world prophet and apostle of Shakti, divine strength. He had the great heart of Lord Buddha. He had the penetrating intellect of Sri Sankaracharya. He had Sri Chaitanya’s love for God. He had the burning renunciation of Jesus Christ
Swami Vivekananda’s share of the human struggle made him a truly heroic person.
Swami Vivekananda was a great spiritual luminary, a
Rishi. He was the Incarnation of Lord Shiva who was roused by Sri Ramakrishna from his deep samadhi. He took a human form and accepted human suffering for the good of humanity. The Master explained Narendra’s profound power of meditation by saying that Narendra was the embodiment of the “Shiva-nature” or “Shiva-power.”9 We can never grasp his infinite spiritual
significance or the fullness of his human personality. His life was perfectly balanced. His universal sympathy for human suffering drew him to others. We are giving some illustrations of his heroic struggle to remove human suffering while he was enduring his own trials and tribulations. We hope these sketches will create a deep impression in the minds of sincere devotees.
Swami Vivekananda’s soul was always “hankering after peace and rest eternal undisturbed“11 and longing for the solitary life of a sadhu: “I long, oh! I long for my rags, my shaven head, my sleep under the trees, and my food from begging! India is the only place where, with all its faults, the soul finds its freedom, its God.” Swamiji had to experience extreme hardship, humiliation, betrayal, and undergo many other sufferings throughout his life. He bore his cross with love and was the apostle of strength to others. He taught them that they too might experience the glory of the Self that had given him his strength.
Narendra’s early experience of poverty. The dire poverty of young Narendranath and his family after his father’s death in 1884 is well known. Narendra, still in college and unemployed, was the eldest son. All hope rested on him alone. During this period, he got his first bitter taste of betrayal. His once affectionate relatives became hostile enemies. They evicted his family from their residence on illegal terms. They deprived his mother of her legitimate possessions and her share of property. For many years, Swamiji had to go to court to defend the legal rights of his family. These lawsuits were expensive and caused him severe financial and emotional difficulties. He was often without food for days at a time. One time he was so famished that he fainted by the roadside. His emotional and psychological suffering more than matched his physical suffering. While his heart burned with the desire to protect his mother and family, his mind longed for God and the contemplative life. He wanted to renounce everything and become a monk. That was his noble ideal. Friends and relatives tried to discourage him and circulated horrible false statements about his character. Then, in 1886, when he was twenty-three years old, his beloved and revered Guru left the mortal coil. This was more than he could bear. Sri Ramakrishna had been the Life of his life and the support of his being. He had been his only friend, consoler and spiritual teacher. Bereft of the Master, all hope left him and he began to doubt himself. The shock severely tested his faith in God and is best described in his own words:
Even before the period of mourning was over I had to go about in search of a job. Starving and barefooted, I wandered from office to office under the scorching noonday sun with an application in hand, one or two intimate friends who sympathized with me in my misfortunes accompanying me sometimes. But everywhere the door was slammed in my face. This first contact with the reality of life convinced me that unselfish sympathy was rare in the world – there was no place in it for the weak, the poor and the destitute. I noticed that those who only a few days before would have been proud to have helped me in any way, now turned their face against me, though they had enough and to spare. Seeing all this, the world sometimes seemed to me to be the handiwork of the devil. One day, weary and footsore, I sat down in the shade of the Ochterlony Monument [the present Shahid Minar] on the Maidan. A friend or two were with me that day or maybe met me there by chance. One of them, I remember distinctly, sang by way of consoling me: “Here blows the wind, the breath of Brahman, His grace palpable! . . .” It was like a terrible blow on my head. I remembered the helpless condition of my mother and brothers, and exclaimed in bitter anguish and despondency, “Will you please stop that song? Such fancies may be pleasant to those who are born with a silver spoon in their mouth and have no starving relatives at home. Yes, there was a time when I too thought like that. But today, before the hard facts of life, it sounds like grim mockery.”
My friend must have been wounded. How could he fathom the dire misery that had forced these words out of my mouth? Sometimes when I found that there were not provisions enough for the family and my purse was empty, I would pretend to my mother that I had an invitation to dine out and remain practically without food. Out of self-respect I could not disclose the facts to others. My rich friends sometimes requested me to go to their homes or gardens and sing. I had to comply when I could not avoid doing so. I did not feel inclined to express my woes before them nor did they try, themselves, to find out my difficulties. A few among them, sometimes, used to ask me, “Why do you look so pale and weak today?” Only one of them came to know about my poverty, and now and then, unknown to me, sent anonymous help to my mother, by which act of kindness he has put me under a deep debt of gratitude.
Some of my old friends who earned their livelihood by unfair means, asked me to join them. A few among them, who had been compelled to follow this dubious way of life by sudden turns of fortune as in my case, really felt sympathy for me. There were other troubles also. Various temptations came my way. A rich woman sent me an ugly proposal to end my days of penury, which I sternly rejected with scorn. Another woman also made similar overtures to me. I said to her, “You have wasted your life seeking the pleasures of the flesh. The dark shadows of death are before you. Have you done anything to face that? Give up all these filthy desires and remember God!”
In spite of all these troubles, however, I never lost faith in the existence of God or in His divine mercy. Every morning, taking His name, I got up and went out in search of a job. One day my mother overheard me and said bitterly, “Hush, you fool! You have been crying yourself hoarse for God from your childhood, and what has He done for you?” I was stung to the quick. Doubt crossed my mind. “Does God really exist?” I thought, “And if so, does He really hear the fervent prayer of man? Then why is there no response to my passionate appeals? Why is there so much woe in His benign kingdom? Why does Satan rule in the realm of the Merciful God?” Pandit Ishwarchandra Vidyasagar’s words – “If God is good and gracious, why then do millions of people die for want of a few morsels of food at times of famine?” – rang in my ears with bitter irony. I was exceedingly annoyed with God. That was also the most opportune moment for doubt to creep into my heart.
It was ever against my nature to do anything secretly. On the contrary, it was a habit with me from my boyhood not to hide even my thoughts from others through fear or anything else. So it was quite natural for me now to proceed to prove to the world that God was a myth, or that, if he existed, to call upon Him was fruitless. Soon the report gained currency that I was an atheist and did not scruple to drink or even frequent houses of ill fame. This unmerited calumny hardened my heart still more. I openly declared that in this miserable world there was nothing reprehensible in a man who, seeking for a brief respite, should resort to anything; not only that, but that if I was once convinced of the efficacy of such a course, I should not, through fear of anybody, shrink from following it.
A garbled report of the matter soon reached the ears of the Master and his devotees in Calcutta. Some of these came to me for firsthand knowledge of the situation and hinted that they believed some of the rumours at least. A sense of wounded pride filled my heart in finding that they could think me so low. In an exasperated mood I gave them to understand plainly that it was cowardice to believe in God through fear of hell and argued with them as to His existence or non-existence, quoting several Western philosophers in support. The result was that they took leave of me convinced that I was hopelessly lost – and I was glad. When I thought that perhaps Shri Ramakrishna also would believe that, I was deeply wounded at heart. “Never mind,” I said to myself, “if the good or bad opinion of a man rests upon such flimsy foundations, I don’t care.” And I was amazed to hear later that the Master had, at first, received the report coldly, without expressing an opinion one way or the other. But when one of his favourite disciples, Bhavanath, said to him with tears in his eyes, “Sir, I could not even dream that Narendra could stoop so low,” he was furious and said, “Hush you fool! The Mother has told me that it can never be so. I shan’t be able to look at you if you speak to me like that again.”
But not withstanding these forced atheistic views, the vivid memory of the divine visions I had experienced since my boyhood, and especially since my contact with Shri Ramakrishna, would lead me to think that God must exist and that there must be some way to realize Him. Otherwise life would be meaningless. In the midst of all these troubles and tribulations I must find that way. Days passed and the mind continued to waver between doubt and uncertainty. My pecuniary needs also remained just the same.13
Narendra’s hardships at Baranagore. Just before his Mahasamadhi on 16 August 1886 at Cossipore, the Master had transmitted his power to Narendra. This profound power was working within Narendra to make him a fit instrument for creating a new epoch. He established the basic form of the Ramakrishna Math in a rented building at Baranagore on 19 October 1886. He later wrote, “When my Master left the body, we were a dozen penniless and unknown young men. Against us were a hundred powerful organizations, struggling hard to nip us in the bud.14 During his lecture, “My Life and Mission,” in Pasadena, California in 1900, he spoke of the physical, emotional and psychological hardships of those days:
We had no friends. Who would listen to a few boys, with their crank notions? Nobody. At least, in India, boys are nobodies. Just think of it – a dozen boys, telling people vast, big ideas, saying they are determined to work these ideas out in life. Why, everybody laughed. From laughter, it became serious; it became persecution. . . . And thus we went on, that band of boys. The only thing we got from those around us a kick and a curse – that was all. Of course, we had to beg from door to door for our food: got hips and haws – the refuse of everything – a piece of bread here and there. We got hold of a broken-down old house, with hissing cobras living underneath; and because that was the cheapest, we went into that house and lived there. … I believed, as I was living, that these ideas [lifetransforming ideas of Sri Ramakrishna] were going to rationalize India and bring better days to many lands and foreign races. With that belief, came the realization that it is better that a few persons suffer than that such ideas should die out of the world. What if a mother or two brothers die? It is a sacrifice. Let it be done. No great thing can be done without sacrifice. The heart must be plucked out and the bleeding heart placed upon the altar. Then great things are done. Is there any other way? None have found it. . . .15
Sri Ramakrishna’s young disciples needed to succeed as a brotherhood with a clear mission. Narendra, as their leader, bore this heavy responsibility alone while also looking after his family. Narendra suffered mental agony at Baranagore:
I had to stand between my two worlds. On the one hand, I would have to see my mother and brothers starve unto death; on the other, I had believed that this man’s [Sri Ramakrishna] ideas were for the good of India and the world, and had to be preached and worked out. And so the fight went on in my mind for days and months. Sometimes I would pray for five or six days and nights together without stopping. Oh, the agony of those days! I was living in hell! The natural affections of my boy’s heart drawing me to my family – I could not bear to see those who were the nearest and dearest to me suffering. On the other hand, nobody to sympathize with me. Who would sympathize with the imaginations of a boy – imaginations that caused so much suffering to others? Who would sympathize with me? None – except one. . . . [Holy Mother Sri Sarada Devi] was the only one who sympathized . . . but she was powerless . . . Oh, how much it has cost! What agony! What torture! What terrible suffering is behind every deed of success in every life!16
After practicing hard austerities, Narendra acted on his innermost resolve. In December 1886, at the home of Matangini Devi in Antpur, he took the vow of renunciation on Christmas Eve along with the other disciples who were living at Baranagore.
A serious conflict troubled his mind. Before the Master’s death, he had experienced Nirvikalpa Samadhi by his grace but Sri Ramakrishna had denied him further experiences of that state. Still, he longed to go to a solitary place in the Himalayas and remain absorbed in the Absolute. This desire would not leave him. During this period of mental turmoil, Balaram Bose and Surendra Mitra, the two main householders who supported the Baranagore Math, died.