Swami Vvekananda’s hardships as a wandering monk. Between 1890 and 1893, Swamiji wandered as a monk throughout the length and breadth of India. He encountered great hardships along the way, with his “health breaking all the time”:
It tells on the body in the long run: sometimes one meal at nine in the evening, another time a meal at eight in the morning, another after two days, another after three days – and always the poorest and roughest thing. Who is going to give the beggar the good things he has? And then, they have not much in India. And most of the time walking, climbing snow peaks, sometimes ten miles of hard mountain climbing, just to get a meal. They eat unleavened bread in India, and sometimes they have it stored away for twenty or thirty days, until it is harder than bricks; and then they will give a square of that. I would have to go from house to house to collect sufficient for one meal. And then, the bread was so hard, it made my mouth bleed to eat it. Literally, you can break your teeth on that bread. Then I would put it in a pot and pour water over it from the river. For months and months I existed that way – of course it was telling on the health.18
Several times, Swami Vivekananda became seriously ill due to starvation and severe cold. Once in Almora, a single cucumber offered to him by a Muslim farmer energized him. Another time when Swamiji was ministering to the needs of the local people in Khetri, he completely forgot to eat or drink water for three days.
The most serious illness attacked him when he was in Hrishikesh with a few of his brother-monks towards the end of 1890. It turned out to be a great blessing. A dangerously high fever and diphtheria had lowered his pulse. In the bitter cold, he fell down unconscious but gradually recovered. Later, he told his brother monks that “during that apparently unconscious state, he had seen that he had a particular mission in the world to fulfill and that until he had accomplished that mission, he would have no rest. Indeed, his brother-disciples noticed such a superabundant spiritual energy welling up in him that it seemed that he could hardly contain it. He was restless to find a proper field for its expression.”19 The vision ended his desire for intense sadhana in the Himalayas.
Swami Vivekananda’s mission is born. Suffering inspires a sense of mission in great souls. Swamiji’s personal sufferings never overwhelmed him. The suffering of others inspired him to action. The shock of his sister Jogendrabala’s suicide in 1891 turned his mind to the plight of women in India. The tragic condition of India’s impoverished masses was much harder for him to bear. It haunted him constantly, pained his heart and made him restless with sorrow. He was always thinking of ways to help them. Their wretched condition and hopeless future dominated his mind. He wrote to a brother disciple, “I am going about taking food at others’ houses shamelessly and without the least compunction, like a crow.” Swamiji stopped begging from the poor for his own survival. On some days, he vowed never to ask for food and to eat only what came to him. Once, he nearly died for lack of nourishment while passing through a forest for many hours without food and water. He fell exhausted to the ground. He set aside all his thoughts and fixed his mind on God. He remained in this concentrated state. As darkness fell, he saw a tiger approaching. It looked at him, settled on its haunches and did not come any closer. Resigning himself to his fate, he thought, “Ah! This is right; both of us are hungry. After all, this body has not been the means of the absolute realisation. Therefore by it no good to the world will possibly be done. It is well and desirable that it should be of
service at least to this hungry beast.”20 The tiger sauntered away and Swamiji spent the remainder of the night in deep meditation. At dawn, he felt himself suffused with great power.
By 1893, Swamiji was convinced that he must go to the West and shared this idea with others in Madras: “The time has come for the propagation of our faith . . . for the Hinduism of the Rishis to become dynamic . . . In order to rise again, India must be strong and united, and must focus all its living forces.”21 Without any effort on his part, money was donated for him to go to the Parliament of Religions in Chicago. Still, Swamiji felt uneasy and wanted a sign from the Mother to be certain he was not just “following his own will” or “being carried away by enthusiasm.”22 He earnestly prayed to Mother: “O Mother, show me Thy will! It is Thou Who art the Doer. Let me be only Thy instrument.”23
In the midst of his agony of waiting for a sign from the Mother, Swamiji had to endure certain betrayals of those who had promised to support his efforts in the West. One wealthy gentleman refused to give even a pie. Then, from Swami Shivananda’s reminiscences, it is learned that the Raja of Ramnad, who had encouraged Swamiji to go to the Parliament and pledged Rs, 10,000 (which Swamiji rejected at the time), later changed his mind. The Raja feared that Swamiji might get involved in politics, which would work against the Raja’s own intentions. When the Raja was approached through a letter from Swamiji’s Madras disciples to fulfill his pledge, he wrote back, “I am unable to send any money for this purpose.” The Raja’s rejection augured ill for Swamiji’s mission and was a devastating blow to him; Swamiji had placed his hope in the Raja’s support for his journey to America. In February 1893, a day after arriving in Hyderabad, Swamiji wrote in part to Alasinga Perumal:
So all my plans have been dashed to the ground. That is why I wanted to hurry off from Madras in the beginning. In that case I would have months left in my hands to seek out for somebody amongst our northern princes to send me over to America. But alas, it is now too late. First, I cannot wander about in this heat – I would die. Secondly, my fast friends in Rajputana would keep me bound down to their sides if they get hold of me and would not let me go over to Europe. So my plan was to get hold of some new person without my friends’ knowledge. But this delay at Madras has dashed all my hopes to the ground, and with a deep sigh I give it up, and the Lord’s will be done! It is my “Praktana” [fate]; nobody to blame. . . . “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven, for Thine is the glory and the kingdom for ever and ever.”25
Swamiji’s many encounters with India’s poor gave positive reinforcement to the vision he had had in Hrishikesh about his future mission. With unsurpassed sympathy for the suffering of India’s masses, Swamiji ended his life of wandering as a monk. On 20 August 1893, he wrote to Alasinga Perumal, “I have travelled twelve years with this load in my heart and this idea in my head. I have gone from door to door of the so-called rich and great. With a bleeding heart I have crossed half the world to this strange land, seeking for help.”26 Swamiji revealed many of his hardships in this letter: “All those rosy ideas we had before starting have melted, and I have now fight against many impossibilities. . .
Starvation, cold, hooting in the streets on account of my quaint dress, these are what I have to fight against. But, my dear boy, no great things were ever done without great labour.”27 The same day, Swamiji sent Alasinga a cable that read, “Starving. All money spent. Send money to return at least.” Swamiji’s compassion was fully aroused. He felt compelled both to find a way to help the poor of India and to continue leading the Brotherhood for that purpose.
The other side of success in America. To raise money and help India’s “sunken millions” to “have a better piece of bread and a better piece of rag on their bodies,” he went to America. Swamiji had to face many trials and suffer many indignities from the first day of his arrival in the West. On July 25, 1893, his steamship, the
Empress of India, docked at Vancouver. Swamiji froze to the bone. The clothing his friends had given him was not suitable to the bitter cold of the Pacific Northwest. The next morning, he travelled by rail, changing trains three times along the way to reach Chicago, where he would attend the World Parliament of Religions as a delegate. He was alone in a foreign land, nearly penniless and unaided. He arrived in Chicago five weeks before the opening of the Parliament, “burdened with unaccustomed possessions, not knowing where to go, conspicuous because of his strange attire, annoyed by the lads who ran after him in amusement, weary and confused by the exorbitant charges of the porters, bewildered by the crowds.” The worldliness and materialism that he saw everywhere shocked him.
The Parliament’s authorities required all delegates to produce credentials. Professor John Henry Wright of Harvard University had given him the address of the Chairman of the Parliament Committee. He had also given him letters of introduction to the committees responsible for housing and provisions for the Oriental delegates. Unfortunately, Swamiji had misplaced the address. That night, tired and exhausted, he fell asleep in an empty boxcar in a railway freight yard. The Parliament had not yet begun and Americans had yet to learn who Swami Vivekananda was. He always remained a true Sannyasin. The following morning, in the German quarter, he went to the wealthy neighborhood of Lake Shore Drive to beg for food, in the same manner as in India. He also hoped to get the directions to the Parliament. At every door, the servants who answered his knock mistook him for a vagabond. They rejected him and treated him rudely. On the street, men looked at his foreign dress and mocked him. Swamiji did not write about these things to Alasinga. Cold, exhausted by hunger and anxious about whether the Parliament would accept him as a delegate, he sank down on a park bench and resigned himself to God’s will. The rest is history.
The honor and world fame that Swamiji’s purity and spiritual stature earned him from his very first address on September 11, 1893 predicted his future. From that day on there was only ceaseless labor for him. The terrific demands on every level of his being, continued until the end of his life. On that day, he lost the dearest treasure of a man of renunciation: peace and quietude. His magnificent success did not make him feel at all triumphant. He stayed alone in his room that night thinking about India’s poor and weeping bitterly:
As he retired the first night and lay upon his bed, the terrible contrast between poverty-stricken India and opulent America oppressed him. He could not sleep for pondering over India’s plight. The bed of down seemed to be a bed of thorns. The pillow was wet with his tears. He went to the window and gazed out into the darkness until he was well-nigh faint with sorrow. At length, overcome with emotion, he fell to the floor, crying out, “O Mother, what do I care for name and fame when my motherland remains sunk in utmost poverty? To what a sad pass have we poor Indians come when millions of us die for want of a handful of rice, and here they spend millions of rupees upon their personal comforts! Who will raise the masses in India! Who will give them bread? Show me, O Mother, how I can help them!”31
He had been bold and fearless at the Parliament as never before that event – full of faith in himself and his mission of helping his people. He was an unassailable messenger of truth. The days with his brother monks at the Baranagore Math had strengthened his faith:
A thousand times despondency came; but there was one thing always to keep us hopeful – the tremendous love between us. I have got a hundred men and women around me; if I become the devil himself tomorrow, they will say, “here we are still! We will never give you up!” That is a great blessing. In happiness, in misery, in famine, in pain, in the grave, in heaven, or in hell who never gives me up is my friend. Is such friendship a joke? A man may have salvation through such friendship. That brings salvation if we can love like that. If we have that faithfulness, why, there is the essence of all concentration. You need not worship any gods in the world if you have that faith, that strength, that love. And that was there with us all throughout that hard time. . . . If you really want the good of others, the whole universe may stand against you and cannot hurt you. It must crumble before your power of the Lord in you if you are sincere and really unselfish.32
In January 1895, Swamiji organized the headquarters of The Vedanta Society of New York at 54 West 33rd Street. In those days, it was not a good neighborhood and he had to put up with many difficulties on this account. Leon Landsberg (Swami Kripananda) had rented one room at this location for Swamiji and shared it with him for a few months, while contributing some practical assistance. From Sister Devamata’s account, the residence was “one in a long, monotonous row of dingy boarding houses,” which to the Swami was “very dirty and miserable.” Swamiji’s room had no private bath or kitchen and proved very inconvenient. It was very uncomfortable – less than twenty feet wide and sparsely furnished. He had to meditate, work, eat, sleep and cook (on a stove donated by a friend) in the same room. They had to share the community kitchen on the ground floor and the common bathroom above with everyone. Occasionally, he and Mr. Landsberg would buy a light supper at a cheap restaurant nearby. Swamiji generally did the cooking and Landsberg had to wash many pots and pans, much to his irritation.
On 28 January, Swamiji began teaching Vedanta classes at the Society, in private homes and at public forums. His classes on the four Yogas and the Bhagavad-Gita were held “every morning, from 11 till one o’clock and often till later” in his room, “free as air.” The spiritual treasures given freely to all by the great Prophet were appreciated but not greatly valued. The donations dropped into the basket that hung near the door of the classroom did not even cover the basic expenses. The lack of funds prevented
Swamiji from moving to a better location and he continued to work hard in his small room on the second floor. Notwithstanding these difficulties, Swamiji was immensely happy and poured his mind, heart and soul into his new mission. A little more than two weeks after moving to this location, Swamiji wrote to Mrs. Bull on 14 February, “I am very happy now. Between Mr. Landsberg and me, we cook some rice and lentils or barley and quietly eat it, and write something or read or receive visits from poor people who want to learn something, and thus I feel I am more a Sannyasin now than I ever was in America.” “Long before [June],” Sara Ellen Waldo wrote, “they had outgrown their small beginnings and had removed downstairs to occupy an entire parlour floor and extension.”34
The extraordinary load of work, however, shattered his health. In February 1895, Swamiji wrote about the hardships of the Eastern tour of lectures: “In order to give lectures, I had often to make my way through snow-covered mountains in the terribly severe winters and had to travel even up to one or two o’clock at night.” In his lecture, “Swami Vivekananda and His Work,” Swami Abhedananda writes, “Sometimes he would be invited by people living in different cities hundreds of miles apart to give public addresses on the same day and he would accept in every case, travelling for hours by train or by any available conveyance.”36 In mid-April, he was forced to take rest at Ridgely Manor, the estate of Mr. Francis Leggett, the future president of the Vedanta Society of New York. Ten days’ rest at the placid retreat on the Hudson River, 80 miles north of New York City, renewed his spirit. “I am to create a new order of humanity,” he wrote to Alasinga Perumal that May.37 Eight days later, he was still in a confident mood and wrote to Alasinga, “Now I have got a hold on New York, and I hope to get a permanent body of workers who will carry on the work when I leave the country . . . . Men are more valuable than all the wealth of the world.” May had not passed when Swamiji had
to face insurmountable financial difficulties and the unexpected departure of Leon Landsberg. He now had to do nearly everything alone to maintain his “household.” His mood changed. He wrote to Mrs. Bull, “The classes are going on; but I am sorry to say, though the attendance is large, it does not even pay enough to cover the rent. I will try this week and then give up.” In June he wrote to Mary Hale, “Landsberg has gone away to live in some other place, so I am left alone. I am living mostly on nuts, fruits and milk.”40 His health quickly deteriorated again and he felt himself wearing out. His “nerves were wracked, his brain tired, his whole body overtaxed. He longed for a brief period of rest and recuperation. 41
Swamiji knew that corresponding adversity and suffering accompany life’s joys and satisfaction. In September 1899, he wrote to Mr. E. T. Sturdy:
I am always in the midst of ebbs and flows. I knew it always and preached always that every bit of pleasure will bring its quota of pain, if not with compound interest. I have a good deal of love given to me by the world; I deserve a good deal of hatred therefore. I am glad it is so – as it proves my theory of “every wave having its corresponding dip” on my own person.
As for me, I stick to my nature and my principle – once a friend, always a friend – also the true Indian principle of looking subjectively for the cause of the objective.42
In fact, his faithful friend Mr. Sturdy had come under the influence of people who were hostile to Swamiji and his noble mission in the West. Sturdy lost his faith in Swamiji. He sent Swamiji a long letter with harsh and unjust accusations against him. Swamiji, however, continued to bless him and accepted this misfortune as part of his own karma. His letter to Mr. Sturdy in November 1899 is not given in its entirety. It reveals the spiritual strength with which Swamiji silently endured this injustice:
My Dear Sturdy,
This is not to defend my conduct. Words cannot wipe off the evils I have done, nor can any censor stop from working the good deeds, if any.
For the last few months I have been hearing so much of the luxuries I was given to enjoy by the people of the West – luxuries which the hypocrite myself has been enjoying, although preaching renunciation all the while; luxuries, the enjoyment of which has been the great stumbling-block in my way, in England at least,. I nearly hypnotized myself into the belief that there has at least been a little oasis in the dreary desert of my life, a little spot of light in one whole life of misery and gloom, one moment of relaxation in a life of hard work and harder curses – even that oasis, that spot, that moment was only one of sense-enjoyment!!
I was glad, I blessed a hundred times a day those that had helped me to get it, when, lo, your last letter comes like a thunderclap, and the dream is vanished. I begin to disbelieve your criticism – have little faith left in all this talk of luxuries and enjoyments, and other visions memory calls up. These I state. Hope you will send it round to friends, if you think fit, and correct me where I am wrong.
I remember your place at Reading, where I was fed with boiled cabbage and potatoes and boiled rice and boiled lentils, three times a day . . . [I do not] remember myself as complaining . . . though I lived as a thief, shaking through fear all the time, and working every day for you . . . [and] of the house on St. George’s Road . . . My poor brother was ill there and . . . drove him away. There too, I don’t remember to have had any luxuries as to food or drink or bed or even the room given to me. . . . The next was Miss Muller’s place. Though she has been very kind to me, I was living on fruits and nuts.
. . . [and] the black hole of London where I had to work almost day and night and cook the meals oft-times for five or six, and most nights with a bite of bread and butter. . . . With the exception of Capt. and Mrs. Sevier, I do not remember even one piece of rag as big as a handkerchief I got from England. On the other hand, the incessant demand on my body and mind in England is the cause of my breakdown in health. This was all you English people gave me, whilst working me to death, and now I am cursed for the luxuries I lived in!! Whosoever of you has given me a coat? Whosoever a cigar? Whosoever a bit of fish or flesh? Whosoever of you, I dare say, I asked food or drink or smoke or dress or money from you?
Ask, Sturdy, as for God’s sake, ask your friends, and first ask your own “God within who never sleeps.”
You have given me money for my work. Every penny of it is there. Before your eyes, I sent my brother away, perhaps to his death; and I would not give him a farthing of the money, which was not my private property. . . . On the other hand, I remember in England Capt. and Mrs. Sevier . . . [who] never cursed me for my luxuries, though they are ready to give me luxuries, if I need or wish.
I need not tell you of Mrs. Bull, Miss MacLeod, Mr. and Mrs. Leggett. You know their love and kindness for me, and Mrs. Bull and Miss MacLeod have been to our country, have lived and moved with us as no foreigner ever did, roughing it all, and they do not ever curse me and my luxuries either . . . and these were the people whose bread I was eating, whose clothes were covering my back, whose money bought my smokes and several times paid my rent, whilst I was killing myself for your people, when you were taking my pound of flesh for the dirty hole and starvation and reserving all this accusation of luxury.
“The clouds of autumn make great noise but send no rain;
The clouds of the rainy season without a word flood the earth.”
See Sturdy, those that have helped or are still helping have no criticism no curses: it is only those who do nothing, who come only to grind their own axes, that curse, that criticize. That such worthless, heartless, selfish, rubbish criticize, is the greatest blessing that can come to me. . . . Take these critics up one after the other – it is all flesh, all flesh and no spirit anywhere. Thank God, they come out sooner or later in their true colours. And you advise me to regulate my conduct, my work, according to the desires of such heartless, selfish persons, and are at your wit’s end because I do not!
Well, Sturdy, my heart aches. I understand it all. I know what you are in – you are in the clutches of people who want to use you . . . But, my poor boy, you have got the flesh smell – a little money – and vultures are around. Such is life.
You said a lot about ancient India. That India still lives, is not dead, and that living India dares even today to deliver her message without fear or favour of the rich, without fear of anybody’s opinion, either in the land where her feet are in chains or in the very face of those who hold the end of the chain, her rulers. That India still lives. . . . -India of undying love, of everlasting faithfulness, the unchangeable, not only in manners and customs, but also in love, in faith, in friendship. And I, the least of that India’s children, love you, Sturdy, with Indian love, and would any day give up a thousand bodies to help you out of this delusion.
During his lectures, Swamiji tried to remove ignorance, superstitious beliefs and prejudice in the minds of his listeners. Powerful enemies, so-called rationalists, scholarly western philosophers, atheists, materialists and the like often came to his lectures. Jealous missionaries and Christian extremists feared his profound influence on the minds of Christians. Openly, shamelessly, they expressed their malice. Their false accusations even infected the minds of some of the Indian delegates at the Parliament. Brahmo leader Pratap Chandra Mazoomdar envied Swamiji’s personal success at the Parliament. He kept up a long campaign of harsh slander against Swamiji’s character and roused many Bengalis to his cause. Swamiji ignored the false charges against him in America and India. He was indifferent to the praises simultaneously heaped upon him in America. In 1894, he had written to Miss Isabelle McKindley from New York:
Now I do not care what they even of my own people say about me (referring to Mazoomdar and others who agreed with him) – except for one thing. I have an old mother. She has suffered much all her life and in the midst of all she could bear to give me up for the service of God and man; but to have given up the most beloved of her children – her hope – to live a beastly immoral life in a far distant country, as Mazoomdar was telling in Calcutta, would have simply killed her. But the Lord is great, none can injure His children.44
Preaching in the States had been no easy matter for Swamiji. Americans had given him a mixed reception. Great open-minded thinkers and scientists of his time praised him. Dogmatic, mean-spirited and prejudiced people condemned him. Others with staked interests gave him a hard time. To make matters worse, Swamiji was well aware of the potential threat to his life in the West. He wrote, “It struck me more than once that I should have to leave my bones on foreign shores, owing to the prevalence of religious intolerance.”45 By one account, during a dinner in Detroit there had been an attempt to kill him by poisoning his coffee. As he raised the cup to his lips, he suddenly had a vision of Shri Ramakrishna standing alongside him and saying, “Do not drink – it is poisoned.”46 In the West, Swamiji had faced several other close encounters with death with great courage and strength. In England, when a stampeding bull chased him and his party, a woman fell while trying to escape. Swamiji confronted the charging bull in an effort to protect her, whereupon the bull stopped in its tracks! Another time in the Alps, he barely escaped falling from a rock face to his death.