ON THE WAY TO AND EARLY DAYS IN AMERICA
The Swami accustomed himself gradually to the life on board the ship. At first he was much worried with having to take care of the many things which his voyage made necessary. This proved to be one of his greatest crosses. He, the Parivrajaka, whose sole belonging had been in former times a Kamandalu, was now burdened with a tourist’s outfit of trunks, valises and a wardrobe I How mysterious is the Providence that regulates the destiny of him who has given himself over at the Feet of the Lord! Aside from this, the Swami enjoyed his various novel experiences. His rich imaginative nature saw beauty, in a thousand forms, in the swelling and falling of the waters, in every gust of wind, in every cloud. The mighty expanse of water, the invigorating air, the care-free atmosphere and the courtesy of all aboard, reconciled the Swami to his new surroundings.
His commanding presence, his courtly manner, his intelligent face, his manly bearing – made him popular with his fellow-passengers. They admired the orange-robed Oriental with luminous countenance and tiger-like courage. Often the Captain, when at leisure, would join the Swami in his solitary walks. He showed him the entire ship, explaining to him the mechanism of the engines. The Swami soon accommodated himself to the strange food, strange environment and the strange people ; and by watching others he acquainted himself with the manners and customs of the Europeans.
It was not long before the steamer reached Colombo where a halt for almost a whole day was made. The Swami made use of the opportunity to visit the city. He drove through the streets, visited a temple rich with Buddhistic imagery, and was fascinated at seeing the image in it, which was a very gigantic image of the Lord Buddha, in a reclining posture, entering Nirvana. The next stop was Penang, a strip of land along the sea in the body of the Malay Peninsula. The Swami learned that the Malayas were Mohammedans, that the place had been infested in the olden days with pirates. “But now/* writes the Swami, “the leviathan guns of modern turreted battleships have forced the Malays to look about for more peaceful pursuits.” On his way from Penang to Singapore, he had glimpses of Sumatra, with its high mountains, and the Captain pointed out to him several favourite haunts of pirates in days gone by. The Swami was as happy as a child at seeing new and strange lands. The next halting-place was Singapore, the capital of the Straits Settlements, where he went to see the Botanical Gardens with its beautiful collection of palms, and the museum.
The next port was Hongkong, giving the first glimpse of China. The name conjured up to the Swami the land of dreams and of romance ; but he found that there were no greater commercial people than the Chinese. He was interested to see the great rush of crafts that swept in and about the great steamer, and was amused by the way their owners implored the travellers in various dialects and in broken English to come to shore in their boats. It was a swarming and restless life. In a humorous vein, the Swami writes in his letter from Yokohama:
“These boats with two helms are rather peculiar. The boatman lives in the boat with his family. Almost always the wife is at the helms, managing one with her hands and the other with one of her feet. And in ninety per cent of cases you find a baby tied to her back, with the hands and feet of the little Chin left free. It is a quaint sight to see the little John Chinaman dangling very quietly from his mother’s Backwhilst she is now setting with might and main, now pushing heavy loads, or jumping with wonderful agility from boat to boat. And there is such a rush of boats and steam launches coming in and going out. Baby John is every moment in danger of having his little head pulverised, pigtail and all; but he does not care a fig. This busy life seems to have no charm for him, and he is quite content to learn the anatomy of a bit of rice-cake given to him from time to time by the madly busy mother. The Chinese child is quite a philosopher and calmly goes to work at an age when your Indian boy can hardly crawl on all fours. He has learned the philosophy of necessity too well. Their extreme poverty is one of the causes why the Chinese and the Indians have remained in a state of mummified civilisa-lion. To an ordinary Hindu or Chinese, everyday necessity is too hideous to allow him to think of anything else.’*
The halt of three days at Hongkong gave the passengers an opportunity to visit Canton, eighty miles up the Si Kiang river. The Swami’s impressions are best given in his own words:
“What a scene of bustle and life! What an immense number of boats almost covering the waters I And not only those that are carrying on the trade, but hundreds of others which serve as houses to live in. And quite a lot of them so nice and big! In fact, they are big houses two or three stories high, with verandahs running round and streets between and all floating!
“. . . Around us on both sides of the river for miles and miles is the big city – a wilderness of human beings, pushing, – struggling, surging, roaring”
Canton proved to be a revelation to the Swami. He learned that the high-caste Chinese lady can never be seen, and that there is as strict a zenana in China as is in vogue amongst the Hindus of Northern India. He found that even many of the women of the labouring classes had “feet smaller than those of our youngest child, and of course they cannot be said to walk, but hobble.,, In Canton, the Swami visited several of the more important temples, the very largest of which was dedicated to the memory of the first Buddhist Emperor and the first five hundred disciples of Buddha. Entering the temple he found an imposing figure of Lord Buddha in the central position, and beneath him was the image of the Emperor in reverent and meditative attitude. About him grouped the images of the five hundred disciples of the Lord. He studied the ancient Buddhist sculpture and wondered at the artistry of these wooden images. He found many points of similarity between Buddhist and Indian temples! He observed as well their dissimilarities and delighted in their originality.
But as a monk his earnest desire was to see a Chinese monastery. Unfortunately, these monasteries were on grounds forbidden to foreigners. What could be done? He asked the interpreter, only to be told that it was impossible. But this served only to intensify his desire. He must see a Chinese monastery I He said to the interpreter, “Suppose a foreigner goes there, what then?” only to receive the reply, “Why, sir, they are sure to maltreat him ! ” The Swami thought that the monks would not molest him if they knew him to be a Hindu Sadhu. He persisted and finally induced the interpreter and his fellow passengers to tread the “forbidden ground,” saying laughingly, “Come, let us see if they will kill usl” But they had not gone far when the interpreter cried out, “Away! Away! Gentlemen! They are coining, and they are infuriated! ” Some two or three men with clubs in their hands were seen approaching rapidly. Frightened at their menacing appearance, all but himself and the interpreter took to their heels. When even the latter evinced a desire to flee, the Swami seized him by the arm and said with a smile, “My good man, you must not run away before you tell me what the Chinese call an Indian Yogi in their language.” Having been told this, the Swami called out to the men in a loud voice that he was an Indian Yogi. And lo, the word Yogi acted like magic! The expression of the angry men changed to that of deep reverence and they fell at his feet. They arose and stretched out their joined palms in most respectful salutation ; and then said something in a loud voice, of which one word the Swami understood to be “Kabatch.” He thought it was undoubtedly the Indian word, meaning amulet. But to be sure of what they meant, he shouted to the interpreter, who stood at a safe distance, confounded at these strange developments, as well he might be, for never in all his experience had he witnessed such a spectacle as this. For an explanation the man said, “Sir, they want amulets to ward off evil spirits and unholy influences. They desire your protection.” The Swami was taken aBackfor a moment. He did not believe in charms. Suddenly he took a sheet of paper from his pocket, divided it into several pieces, and wrote on all the word “Om” in Sanskrit, the most holy word of the Vedas and the symbol of the highest transcendent truth. He gave them the bits of paper, and the men, touching them to their heads led him into the monastery.
In the more isolated portions of the building he was shown
many Sanskrit manuscripts written, strange to say, in old Bengali characters. And then it occurred to him, that when he had visited the temple dedicated to the First Buddhist Emperor he had been struck with the unmistakable resemblance of the faces of the five hundred followers of the Lord to those of the Bengalis. These evidences, as also his past study of Chinese Buddhism, convinced him that Bengal and China had at one time been in close communication, that there must have been a great influx of Bengali Bliikshus in China, who brought to that: distant country the gospel of the Blessed One. and that Indian thought had dominated Chinese civilisation in a remarkable way.
At Nagasaki in Japan, the Swami was greatly impressed with everything he saw. In his first letter to his Madras disciples he writes:
“Japanese are one of the cleanliest peoples on earth. Everything is neat and tidy. The streets are nearly all broad, straight and regularly paved. Their little houses are cage-likc, and their pine-covered evergreen little hills form the background of almost every town and village. The short-staiured, fair-skinned, quaintly-dressed Japs, their movements, attitudes, gestures, everything is picturesque. Japan is the land of the picturesque! Almost every house has a garden at the back, very nicely laid out according to Japanese fashion with small shrubs, grass-plots, small artificial waters and small stone bridges/’
From Nagasaki the ship sailed on to Kobe. Here the Swami disembarked, and took the land route to Yokohama in order to see the interior of Japan, planning to catch the steamer again at Yokohama. He visited three of the larger cities, Osaka, the great manufacturing town, Kyoto, the former capital, and Tokyo, the present capital. During his short sojourn in Japan he penetrated into the essential elements of its national life and acquainted himself with the customs and the culture of the people. But what struck him most was the rage for modem progress in every department of knowledge and in every community. He writes:
“The Japanese seem to be fully awakened to the necessities of the present times. They have now a thoroughly organised army equipped with guns, which one of their own officers has invented, and which is said to be second to none. Then, they are continually increasing their navy. I have seen a tunnel nearly a mile long bored by a Japanese engineer.
”The match factories are simply a sight to sec, and they are bent upon making everything they want in their own country. There is a Japanese line plying between China and Japan, which shortly intends running between Bombay and Yokohama.”
In all these cities he made a point of seeing the important temples and studying the rituals and ceremonies observed in them. To his amazement he found that here also the temples were inscribed with Sanskrit Mantras in old Bengali characters, (though only a few of the ecclesiastics knew Sanskrit), and that the modern spirit had penetrated even to the priesthood. He was especially delighted to discover that, “To the Japanese, India is still the dreamland of everything high and good.”
In his letter from Yokohama to the group of disciples in Madras, one finds the Swami vigorously denouncing the evils of his own country, trying to arouse it from the state of inertia into which it had sunk through priestcraft and social tyranny. He had done that often before, but once out of the land he gained a much clearer perspective and found that the system which disregarded the masses and trampled them under foot, was the root of all India’s evils. He did not rant against the Brahmanical culture. Indeed, he revered it. What he desired was that Indians should “Come out and be men!” He wrote in that letter: “India wants the sacrifice of at least a thousand
of her young men – men, mind and not brutes. . . . How many men, unselfish, thoroughgoing men, is Madras ready now to supply, to struggle unto death to bring about a new state of things – sympathy for the poor – bread for their hungry mouths – enlightenment to the people at large . . . who have been brought to the level of beasts by the tyranny of your forefathers?” This intense note of criticism, enthusiasm and inspiration which came from Yokohama stirred the hearts of the disciples of the Swami in Madras. The letter shows how his heart was always Indian, and the outburst is that of a patriot who travelling abroad finds in other nations a more modern, organised and self-reliant public life and desires it for his native land.
From Yokohama the ship sailed on to Vancouver – from the Old World to the New! As the ship drew near to the port of Vancouver in British Columbia the Swami saw from a distance the land of his hopes. For want of warm clothing he had suffered much on board the ship from cold, for, though he was provided with a handsome wardrobe, it did not occur to him or to his disciples that this summer voyage by the Northern Pacific would be cold. From Vancouver he went by train to Chicago through Canada. Through city after city the train carried him, until finally on the third day he found himself, bewildered as a child, in the mazes of the city of Chicago. Being unused to handling money and to foreign travel, the Swami had been imposed upon at every stage of his journey.
What the state of the Swami’s mind was when he reached Chicago can well be imagined. 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 exorbitant charges of the porters, bewildered by the crowds, chiefly visitors to and from the World’s Fair, he sought a hotel. When the porters had brought his luggage and he was at last alone and free from interruptions, he sat down amidst his trunks and satchels and tried to calm his mind.
On the following day he set out to visit the World’s Fair. He was struck speechless with amazement at the wonders he saw. Here all the latest products of the inventive and artistic mind of the entire world had been brought to a focus, as it were, for examination and admiration. He visited the various exhibition palaces, marvelling at the vast machinery and at the arts and products of the land, but above all at the tremendous energy, and practical acumen of the human mind as manifested by the exhibits. But amongst the streams of people he felt desperately alone, for in all that vast assembly, ay, in the whole continent of North America he had not one friend. He returned to his hotel in the evening quite exhausted. Soon the
Swami became acquainted with people here and there who approached him, desiring to know who he was. He continued to frequent the Fair, absorbing every aspect of learning with which he was brought into contact. The splendour of it all, its perfect organisation, made him wonder. He was a keen observer ; his eyes were eager to take in every object of value in the Exhibition.
While he was on the Fair grounds one day a funny incident occurred, which is best narrated in the Swami’s own words. In a letter written shortly after his leaving Chicago he writes:
“The Raja of K – was here and he was being lionised by some portion pf Chicago society. I once met the Raja in the Fair grounds, but he was too big to speak with a poor Fakir. There was an eccentric Mahratta Brahmin selling nail-made pictures in the Fair, dressed in a Dhooti. This fellow told the reporters all sorts of things against the Raja, that he was a raan of low caste, that those Rajas were nothing but slaves, and that they generally led immoral lives, etc., etc. And these truthful (?) editors, for which America is famous, wanted to give the boy’s stories some weight; and so the next day they wrote huge columns in their papers, giving an elaborate description of ‘a man of wisdom’ from India, meaning me – extolling me to the skies, and putting all sorts of words in my mouth, which I never even dreamt of, and ascribing to me all those remarks made by the Mahratta Brahmin about the Raja of K – 1 And it was such a good brushing, that Chicago society gave up the Raja in hot haste. . . . These newspaper editors made capital out of me to give my countryman a brushing. That shows, however, that in ibis country intellect carries more weight than all the pomp of money and title.”
Yes, somehow the reporters had found the Swami out. Certainly such a conspicuous figure as the Swami was not to escape the notice of news-devouring reporters. And so they learned much about him from the manager of the hotel where” he was stopping, whilst others sought him out upon the Fair grounds, besieging him with questions. Gradually the Swami became accustomed to his strange surroundings which interested him. But there were moments when he felt depressed. Those whom he had met were only casual acquaintances. He had made no friendships; but in his heart, beyond both the excitement and the depression of his experiences, he somehow felt that he had a call from Above and that the Lord would lead and guide him. After all, there was no doubt as to the rightness of the step that he had taken in leaving India.
But his hopes received a rude shock when, after the first few days in Chicago, he betook himself to the Information Bureau of the Exposition in order to learn details concerning the Parliament. He entered its office and made inquiries as to when the great convention was to open. To his dismay he learned that it would not commence until after the first week of September, and that no one would be admitted as a delegate without proper references, and that even the time for being so admitted had gone by. This almost broke the Swami’s spirit. He found that he had left India much too early, as it was then only the middle of July ; and to have come all the way from India and to have to wait all that length of time – for nothing! It was too much. He also discovered that he should have come as a representative of some recognised organisation. He wondered why he had been so foolish as to have listened to those sentimental schoolboys of Madras, who were ignorant of the necessary steps to be taken in order to become a delegate. “To their unbounded faith it never occurred,” writes Sister Nivedita, “that they (the disciples) were demanding what was, humanly speaking, impossible. They thought that Vivekananda had only to appear, and he would be given his chance. The Swami himself was as simple in the ways of the world as these his disciples ; and when he was once sure that he was divinely called to make the attempt, he could see no difficulties in the way. Nothing could have been more typical of the unorgani? ?dness of Hinduism itself than this going forth of its representative unannounced, and without formal credentials, to enter the strongly-guarded doors of the world’s wealth and power.”
Then, too, his purse was gradually being emptied. The hotel charges were enormous; he found that in America money was spent like water. Having no idea of the value of money, he was cheated right and left wherever he went. A great depression came over him, and he feared that he might have to telegraph to his Madras disciples for more money wherewith to return to India or to enable him to remain.At all events,he was determined not to give up easily, but to make every effort to succeed in America ; and if he failed there to try in England ; should failure be his in England too, he could go Backto India and wait for further commands from On High. However, one of his Madras friends wrote to some acquaintances in Chicago about the Swami, and he was not forced to the extreme measure of calling for help. Thus was begun a friendship which lasted as long as the Swami lived. All the members of the family learned to love him dearly, to appreciate his brilliant gifts, and to admire the purity and simplicity of his character, to which they often bore willing and loving testimony.
The Swami was told that: Boston was much less expensive than Chicago. So thinking it advisable he left Chicago for Boston. Mysterious are the ways of the Lord! The Swami, who had been helped in a score of wonderful ways as the Pariv-rajaka, was also helped here. Travelling with him in the same carriage was an elderly lady, Miss Kate Sanborn, from a village near Boston, who was attracted by his noble personality. She approached the Swami and entered into conversation with him. She was more than interested to know that he was an Indian monk and had come to America to preach the great truths of the Vedanta. She said, “Well, Swami, I invite you to come to my home and live there. Perhaps something will turn up in your favour!” He readily consented, and accordingly found himself lodged in the beautiful house of his hostess, called “Breezy Meadows,” in Metcalf, Mass, on the day following his departure from Chicago. The lady was evidently a woman of means. The Swami had an advantage in living with her, in saving for some time his expenditure of a1 per day, and she had the advantage of inviting her friends over there, and showing them a curio from India! The Swami, however, found much difficulty in adjusting himself to his new environments. He was hooted in the streets on account of his dress ; and many of those who came to see him at the invitation of his hostess, plied him with all sorts of queer and annoying questions, thinking hind “a pagan.” However, he patiently bore with all these trials, know-20 ing that nothing worth while was ever accomplished without suffering and sacrifice. Here he met the Lady Superintendent of the Sherborn Reformatory for women, who had come to see him at the wish of his hostess. She invited him to visit the Reformatory. The Swami writes thus of his thoughts and impressions of the visit to a disciple:
‘They do not call it prison but reformatory here. It is the grandest thing I have seen in America. How the inmates are benevolently treated ; how they are reformed, and sent Backas useful members of society ; how grand, how beautiful, you must sec to believe it! And, oh, my heart ached to think of what we think of the poor, the low, in India. They have no chance, no escape, no way to climb up. . . . They sink lower and lower every day, they feel the blows showered upon them by a cruel society, and they do not know whence the blow comes. They have forgotten that they too are men. And the result is slavery. . . . Ah, tyrants I you do not know that the obverse is tyranny and the reverse, slavery. . . .
“The Lord has shown me that religion is not in fault, but it is the Pharisees and Sadducees in Hinduism, hypocrites, who invent all sorts of engines of tyranny in the shape of doctrines Pilramarthika and Vyavaharika.
“. . . Gird up your loins, my boys. … I am called by the Lord for this. I have been dragged through a whole life full of crosses and tortures,
I have seen the nearest and the dearest die almost of starvation, I have been ridiculed, distrusted, and have suffered for my sympathy for the very men who scoff and scorn. . . .
. . The hope lies in you – in the meek, the lowly, but the faithful, . . . Feel for the miserable and look up for help – it shall come. I have travelled for 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. The Lord is great. I know He will help me. I may perish of cold or hunger in this land, but I bequeath to you, young men, this sympathy, this struggle for the poor, the ignorant, the oppressed ….
“. . . Glory unto the Lord, we will succeed. Hundreds will fall in 1 the struggle – hundreds will be ready to take it up. . . . Faith – sympathy, fiery faith and fiery sympathy! Life is nothing ; death is nothing – hunger nothing, cold nothing. Glory unto the Lord – march on ; the Lord is our General. Do not look Backto see who falls – forward – onward! Thus and thus we shall go on, brethren. One falls and another takes up the work.”‘
Indeed, the Swami found himself beset with all sorts of difficulties. He had arrived in America when most people of intellect and position were away for the summer. Winter was
coming on, and he had no warm clothing. His Hindu dress was so conspicuous that his hostess advised him to dress in American fashion. A good suit would cost at least one hundred dollars, which would leave very little margin for living expenses. This uncertainty was a great strain upon him. Many times he did not know which way to turn ; and yet he never lost faith! He wrote in the letter quoted above: “I am here amongst the
children of the Son of Mary, and the Lord Jesus will help me.” He saw’ that the more advanced visitors came because of his love for the Prophet of Nazareth and through that love were able to understand the broadness of Hinduism. He was invited to speak at a large Women’s Club, the members of which were interested in the heroic Ramabai. Before this lecture he had to purchase American clothes; his yellow robes and turban were kept for lecturing purposes only. His lecture was a success, and many persons became interested in him and his work.
Slowly the way was opening up for him. Distinguished persons called on him, amongst them, J. H. Wright, Professor of Greek in the Harvard University, with whom he discussed all manner of subjects for four hours. The Swami had given up all hope of speaking at the Parliament of Religions, but wonderful are the ways of the Lord! Professor Wright became so deeply impressed with his rare ability that he insisted that he should represent Hinduism in the Parliament, saying, “This is the only way you can be introduced to the nation at large.” The Swami explained his difficulties and said that he had no credentials. Professor Wright who recognised his genius said, “To ask you, Swami, for your credentials is like asking the sun to state its right to shine! ” He then assured the Swami that he would take it upon himself to see that he should have a place in the Parliament as a delegate representing Hinduism. He was acquainted with numerous persons of position and distinction in connection with the Parliament and wrote at once to his friend, the Chairman of the Committee on the selection of delegates, stating, “Here is a man who is more learned than all our learned professors put together.” Knowing that the Swami had hot enough money he kindly presented him with a ticket to Chicago* and also gave him letters of introduction to the Committee which had in charge the matters of housing and providing for the Oriental delegates. This was, indeed, a godsend! The Swami rejoiced at this literal manifestation of Divine Providence. Yes, the purpose for which he had come so many, many miles was about to be fulfilled in an unforeseen way. It so happened that on his journey to Chicago, joyous in spirit because the Lord had cleared away the obstacles before him and had given him the means and ways wherewith to present his message to the peoples of the West, he met a merchant who promised to direct him to his proper destination. But at the Chicago Station the merchant was in such a hurry that he forgot to instruct the Swami how to reach that part of the great city where Dr. Barrows had his office, and the Swami, to his dismay, found that he had lost the address! He made inquiries of passers-by, but it being the north-east side of the city where mostly Germans lived, they could not understand him. Night was coming on. He could not even make any one understand that he wanted to learn at least the whereabouts of a hotel. He was lost and knew not what to do. At length, he lay down to sleep in a huge empty box in the railroad freightyards, and trusting to the guidance of the Lord he soon freed himself of all anxieties and fell asleep. On the morrow he was to shake America with his address at the Parliament; but now, so destiny decided, he should lie like some outcast, unknown, unaided and despised – or perhaps, more truly speaking, like some Sannyasin in his land, sleeping where the evening found him. Morning came ; he arose and “smelling fresh water,” as he said, he followed the scent and found himself in a short time on the most fashionable residential drive in the metropolis, the Lake Shore Drive, where millionaires and merchant-princes dwelt. He was extremely hungry and like the true Sannyasin as he was, he commenced begging from house to house, asking for food and to be directed to the quarters of the Parliament Committee. Because of soiled clothes and travel-worn appearance, he was rudely treated at some houses; at others, he was insulted by the servants, and the doors slammed in his face. His heart sank ; he knew nothing of city directories or telephones, so he could not -seek rescue in that way. On and on he went. At length exhausted he sat down quietly upon the roadside, determined to abide by the Will of the Most High. At this juncture, the door of a fashionable residence opposite to him opened and a regal looking woman descended and accosted him in a soft voice in accents of culture and relineinent, “Sir, are you a delegate to the Parliament of Religions?” The Swami told her his difficulties. Immediately she invited him into her house and gave orders to her servants that he should be taken to a room and attended to in every way. She promised the Swami that after he had his breakfast she herself would accompany him to the offices of the Parliament of Religions. The Swami was grateful beyond words. “What a romantic deliverance! How strange the ways of the Lord!” His deliverer was Mrs. George W. Hale; she and her husband and children became his warmest friends.
A new spirit took possession of him. He was convinced beyond doubt that the Lord was with him, and in the spirit of a prophet he awaited the coming of events. With Mrs. Hale he called on the officers of the Parliament, gave his credentials, was gladly accepted as a delegate and found himself lodged1 with the other Oriental delegates [?] to the Parliament. He felt with the passing of each moment that the Parliament of Religions would be the great test, the crucial experience for him. The day glided by in prayer, in meditation and in earnest longing that he might be made the true instrument of the Lord, the true spokesman of Hinduism, the true bearer of his Master’s Message. He made acquaintance with manv distinguished personages who were to attend the Parliament.(ln the grand circle of ecclesiastics that came and went in and about Chicago he moved as one lost in rapture and in prayer, hoping, praying, trusting. He had no personal feeling in the matter, save such as were related to the carrying out of the mission entrusted to him by his Master and perceived by him as command from On High.
1 At the house of Mr. J. B. Lyon, 262 Michigan Avenue.