ESTABLISHING THE AMERICAN WORK
During the Swami’s absence in England, the work of spreading the Vedanta was successfully carried on by his disciples, notably by Swam is Kripananda and Abhayananda, and by Miss S. E. Waldo. They not only held regular weekly meetings on the Vedanta philosophy in New York which were well attended, but carried the Swami’s message to other cities of the Union. Everywhere they found a ready hearing and succeeded in forming new centres, such as at Buffalo and Detroit, where earnest truth-seekers continued the work with zeal and devotion. After three months’ absence the Swami arrived at New York in excellent health and spirits on Friday, December 6. His visit to England and his energetic work there, though a strenuous experience, had been most pleasant. Together with Swami Kripananda, he now made his headquarters in Thirty-ninth Street. They occupied two spacious rooms which could accommodate as many as one hundred and fifty persons. The lady who had promised him help was hindered in giving it. But the Swami did not depend on men and things for his success. He set himself to the task of teaching Karma-Yoga in particular, and gave all those lessons that are embodied in the book known as Karma-Yoga, which is regarded by some as his masterpiece. For two weeks he worked incessantly, giving as many as seventeen class lectures a week, besides carrying on a voluminous correspondence and granting numerous private audiences. The subjects of some of the lectures given at this time were (1) The Claims of Religion: Its Truth and Utility; (2) The Ideal of a
Universal Religion: How It must Embrace Different Types of Minds and Methods ;
(3) The Cosmos: The Order of Creation and Dissolution ; (4) Cosmos (continued).
The disciples of the Swami were eager from the first to have his extempore lectures recorded, as he made no effort to preserve his own teachings. Therefore towards the end of the year 1895, a stenographer was engaged to report his lectures. But it was found that he could not keep up with the Swami ; it was difficult for him to do so, especially because of his lack of familiarity with his subjects. Another was engaged with the same result. Finally, through some strange chance, one J. J. Goodwin, who had recently come to New York from England was engaged ; and the result was surprising. He transcribed exactly and accurately all the utterances of the Swami. A man of the world, with a variegated experience, he forsook the worldly life and all worldly pursuits almost from the moment his eyes fell upon the Swami. The Swami told him many incidents of his past life, and this created such a moral revolution in him that thenceforth his whole life was changed. He became a most ardent disciple, even to the point of attending to the Swami’s personal needs. He would work day and night over the Swami’s lecture, taking them down stenograpliically and then typewriting them, all in the same day, in order to hand over the manuscripts to the newspapers for publication and to be prepared for the same work on the day following. The Swami prized “my faithful Goodwin'” as he was wont to speak of him, and Goodwin accompanied him wherever he went, visiting Detroit and Boston, when the Swami went to those places in the spring of the year 1896, and later accompanying him to England and even to India, where he died. At his demise the Swami was heard to remark, “Now my right hand is gone. My loss is incalculable.” It may be said here that the Swami was comparatively little given to writing. He spoke freely and always extempore and therefore, with the exception of his work on Raja-Yoga, he has left behind him little philosophical writing in his own hand.
Towards the end of the month the Swami took advantage of the Christmas holidays to pay a visit to Boston, as the guest of Mrs. Ole Bull. Returning from there he at once commenced in New York a series of stirring free public lectures at Hardeman Hall, on Sundays, beginning January 5. His lectures before the Metaphysical Society in Brooklyn and the People’s Church in New York drew crowds of listeners and were highly
appreciated. Besides these public lectures, he continued to hold his private classes twice daily, the attendance at which was increasing beyond all expectations. Those who came to the public lectures came also to the Vedanta headquarters ; and oftentimes there was not even standing room in Hardeman Hall, when the Swami spoke. He was called the “lightning orator*’, and soon his lame as a public lecturer in New York spread so widely that it was deemed wise to rent Madison Square Garden, a huge hall, with a seating capacity of over fifteen hundred, for the second series of lectures which he gave in February. The subjects were “Bhakti-Yoga,” “The Real and the Apparent Man,” and “M Master, Shri Ramakrishna Paramahamsa”. In February, he was invited to lecture before the Metaphysical Society at Hartford, Conn. ; he accepted, and spoke on “Soul and God”. Of this lecture the Hartford Daily Times wrote: His lectures are more
in consonance with those of Christ than those of many so-called Christians. His broad charity takes in all religions and all nations. The simplicity of his talk last night was charming.
In February he also lectured before the Ethical Society of Brooklyn. His lectures aroused everywhere an enormous wave of enthusiasm and The New York Herald, the leading paper of New York, mentioning the character of the Swami’s work, in the latter part of January, 1896, said:
“Swami Vivekananda is a name to conjure with in certain circles oa New York society today – and those not the least wealthy or intellectual. It is borne by a dusky gentleman from India, who lor the last twelve months has been making name and fame lor himself in this metropolis by the propagation of certain forms of Oriental religion, philosophy and practice. Last winter his campaign centred in the reception room of a prominent hotel on Fifth Avenue. Having gained for his teaching and himself a certain vogue in society, he now aims to reach the common people and for that reason is giving a scries of free lectures on Sunday afternoons at Hardeman Hall.
“Sufficient success has attended the efforts of Swami Vivekananda. . . . Of his early life he never speaks, save to talk in a general way about the great Master who taught him the doctrines and practices he is now trying to introduce in this country.
. . . His manner is undoubtedly attractive, and he is possessed of a large amount of personal magnetism. One has but to glance at the grave,
attentive faces of the men and women who attend his classes to be convinced that it is not the man’s subject alone that attracts and holds his disciples. …”
The. New York Herald reporter, after giving a description of the Swami and his work in the United States continues as follows:
”When I visited one of the Swami’s classes recently, I found present a well-dressed audience of intellectual appearance. Doctors and lawyers, professional men and socictv ladies were among those in the room.
“Swami Vivekanamla sat in the centre, clad in an ochre-coloured robe. The Hindu had his audience divided on cither side of him and there were between fifty and a hundred persons present. The class was on Karma-Yoga. . . .
“Following the lecture or instruction, the Swami held an informal reception, and the magnetism of the man was shown by the eager manner in which those who had been listening to him. hastened to shake hands or begged for the favour of an introduction.Rut concerning himself the
Swami will not say move than is absolutely necessary. Contrary to the
claim made by his pupils, he declares that he has come to this country alone and not as officially
representing any order of Hindu monks.He belongs to the Sannyasins,
he will say, and is hence free to travel without losing his caste. . . .”
Describing the Swami’s personality at this time, Helen Huntington wrote to the Brahmavadin from Brooklyn:
“. . . . But it has pleased God to send to us out of India a spiritual guide – a teacher whose sublime philosophy is slowly and surely permeating the ethical atmosphere of our country ; a man of extraordinary power and purity, who has demonstrated to us a very high plane of spiritual living, a religion of universal, unfailing charity, self-renunciation, and the purest sentiments conceivable hv the human intellect. The Swami Vivekananda has preached to us a religion that knows no bonds of creed and dogmas, is uplifting, purifying, infinitely comforting and altogether without blemish* – based on the love of God and man and on absolute chastity. . . .
“Swami Vivekananda has made many friends outside the circle of his followers ; he has met all phases of society on equal terms of friendship and brotherhood ; his classes and lectures have been attended by the most intellectual people and advanced thinkers of our cities ; and his influence has already grown into a deep, strong undercurrent of spiritual awakening. No praise or blame has moved him to cither approbation or expostulation ; neither money nor position has influenced or prejudiced him. Towards demonstrations of undue favouritism he has invariably maintained a priestly attitude of inattention, checking foolish advances with a dignity impossible to resist, blaming not any but wrong-doers and evil-thinkers, exhorting only to purity and right living. He is altogether such a man as “kings delight to honour.”
Swami Kripananda, in a letter dated February 19, 1896, to the Brahmavddin, describing the influence exercised by the Swami at this time, writes as follows:
“Since my last letter (of January 31) an immense amount of work has been accomplished by our beloved teacher in the furtherance of our great cause. The wide interest awakened by his teaching, is shown in the ever-increasing number of those who attend the class lessons and the large crowds that come to hear his public Sumlay-lcctures. . . .
” . . . . The strong current of religious thought sent out in his lectures and writings, the powerful impetus given by bis teachings to the pursuit of truth without regard to inherited superstitions and prejudices, though working silently and unconsciously, is exercising a beneficial and lasting effect on the popular mind and so becoming an important factor in the spiritual uplifting of society. Its most palpable manifestation is shown in the growing demand for Vedantic literature and the frequent use of Sanskrit terms by people from whom one would least expect to hear them: Atman, Purusha, Prakriti, Moksha, and similar expressions have acquired full citizenship, and the names of ShankarAcharya and Ramanuja are becoming with many almost as familiar as Huxley and Spencer. The public libraries are running after everything that has reference to India ; the books of Max Muller, Colebrookc, Dcusscn, Burnouf, and of all the authors that have ever written in English on Hindu philosophy, find a ready sale ; and even the dry and tiresome Schopenhauer, on account of his Vedantic background, is being studied with great eagerness.
“People are quick to appreciate the grandeur and beauty of a system which, equally as a philosophy and a religion, appeals to the heart as well as to the reason, and satisfies all the religious cravings of human nature ; especially so, when it is being expounded by one who, like our teacher, with his wonderful oratory is able to rouse at will the dormant love of the divinely sublime in the human soul, and with his sharp and irrefutable logic to easily convince the most stubborn mind of the most scientific matter-of-fact man. No wonder, therefore, that this interest in Hindu thought is to be met with among all classes of society. . .
It was during this period that the Swami was giving his class lessons on “Bhakti-Yoga” and a series of lectures on “Jnana-Yoga” and on “Sdnkhya and Vedanta/’ He closed his public lectures at Madison Square Garden on February 24, with an inspired lecture on “My Master*’, which has become famous as a masterpiece of eloquence and as a glorious tribute to his Master. It so happened that this was the very date of the public celebration of Shri Ramakrishna’s birthday anniversary in India. On Thursday, the 20th, several young men and women took Mantras and on the preceding Thursday, the 13th, Dr. Street, a devout disciple, was initiated by the Swami as a Sannyasin, with the name of Yogananda. The impressive ceremony was performed in the presence of the other Sannyasin and Brahmachari disciples. The fact that the Swami had made three Sannyasins within one year, that three persons representing learning, position and culture, should have abandoned the world and the worldly life, taking the vows of chastity and poverty and obedience, showed how he had brought home, to some at least in that land of worldly enjoyment, a strong conviction of the necessity of renunciation as the only means of realising the Truth. The Press regarded this fact as “one of the most marvellous evidences of the Swami’s powerful influence for good” over those who came into personal contact with him. Many who had been only admirers, now became the Swami’s personal disciples, and expressed a strong desire to be initiated by him into Brahmacharya. Swami Kripananda concludes the letter quoted above by saying in a half-humorous way:
“By the way, India had better at once make clear her title to the ownership of the Swami. They are about to write his biography for the national Encyclopaedia of the United States of America, thus making of him an American citizen. The time may come when even as seven cities disputed with each other for the honour of having given birth to Homer, seven countries may claim our Master as theirs, and thus rob India of the honour of producing one of the noblest of her children.”
Mrs. Ella Wheeler Wilcox, one of the foremost poetesses and writers of America and one of the most representative women in the world, referring to her meeting with the Swami, wrote as follows to the New York American of May 26, 1907:
“Twelve years ago I chanced one evening to hear that a certain teacher of philosophy from India, a man named Vivekananda, was to lecture a block from my home in New York.
“We went out of curiosity (the Man whose name I bear and I), and before wc had been ten minutes in the audience, wc felt ourselves lifted up into an atmosphere so rarefied, so vital, so wonderful, that wc sat spellbound and almost breathless, to the end of the lecture.
“When it was over we went out with new courage, new hope, new strength, new faith, to meet life’s daily vicissitudes. ‘This is the Philosophy, this is the idea of God, the religion which I have been seeking,’ said the Man. And for months afterwards he went, with me to hear Swami Vivekananda explain the old religion and to gather from his wonderful mind jewels of truth and thoughts of helpfulness and strength. It was that terrible winter of financial disasters, when banks failed and stocks went down like broken balloons and business men walked through the dark valleys of despair and the whole world seemed topsy-turvy – just such an era as we are again approaching. Sometimes alter sleepless nights of worry and anxiety, the Man would go with me to hear the Swami lecture, and then he would come out into the winter gloom and walk down the street smiling and say, ‘It is all right. There is nothing to worry over.* And I would go Backto my own duties and pleasures with the same uplifted sense of soul and enlarged vision.
“When any philosophy, any religion, can do this for human beings in this age of stress and strain, and when, added to that, it intensifies their faith in God and increases their sympathies for their kind and gives them a confident joy in the thought of other lives to come, it: is a good and great religion.”
And not only did this celebrated lady meet the Swami, but she became “a devout pupil of the old beautiful Religion of India, as taught by Vivekananda”.She writes further in conclusion:
“We need to learn the greatness of the philosophy of India. We need to enlarge our narrow creeds with the wisdom religious. But we want: to imbue them with our own modern spirit of progress, and to apply them practically, lovingly and patiently to human needs. Vivekananda came to us with a message. … ‘I do not come to convert you to a new belief,””he said. I want you to keep your own belief I want to make the
Methodist a better Methodist.; the Presbyterian a better Presbyterian ; the Unitarian a better Unitarian. I want to teach you to live the truth, to reveal the light within your own soul.’He gave the message that
strengthened the man of business, that caused the frivolous society woman to pause and think ; that gave the artist new aspirations ; that imbued the wife and mother, the husband and father, with a larger and holier comprehension of duty.”
In fact, many famous philosophers and scientists, and the very best of New York’s social representatives attended the Swami’s lectures or came to his rooms to see him and went away filled with a new spiritual vision and a luminous insight. In a letter dated February 17, he wrote to his friends in India that he had succeeded in rousing the very heart of American civilisation. This was literally true ; thousands of persons of all classes had not only heard his message but had actually proclaimed themselves as Vedantins and as his disciples. Thus his desire of reaching the people was fulfilled. He had by this time concluded his class lectures on Raj a-Yoga, Bliakti-Yoga and Karma-Yoga, which were, by the labours of Mr. Goodwin, ready for the Press ; besides, several of his Sunday lectures had already appeared in pamphlet form.
Having finished his work in New York the Swami left on invitation to Detroit to hold classes and lectures for two weeks. Of this period of work, Mrs. Funke writes:
” …. He was accompanied by his stenographer, the faithful Goodwin. They occupied a suite of rooms at The Richelieu, a small family hotel, and had the use of the large drawing-room for class work and lectures. The room was not large enough to accommodate the crowds and to our great regret many were turned away. The room, as also the liall, staircase and library were literally packed. At that time he was all Bhakti – the love for God was a hunger and a thirst with him. A kind of divine madness seemed to take possession of him, as if his heart would burst with longing for the Beloved Mother.
“His last public appearance in Detroit was at the Temple Beth El of which the Rabbi Louis Grossman, an ardent admirer of the Swami, was the pastor. It was Sunday evening, and so great was the crowd that we almost feared a panic. There was a solid line reaching far out into the street and hundreds were turned away. Vivekanarida held the large audience spellbound, his subjects being, ‘India’s Message to the West*, and ‘The Ideal of a Universal Religion*. He gave us a most brilliant and masterly discourse. Never had I seen the Master look as he looked that night. There was something in his beauty not of earth. It was as if the spirit had almost burst the bonds of flesh and it was then that I first saw a foreshadowing of the end. He was much exhausted from years of overwork, and it was even then to be seen that he was not long for this world. I tried to close my eyes to it, but in my heart I knew the truth. He had needed rest but felt that he must go on.**
The next vision of the Swami – one of the most remarkable incidents of his whole American career – is before the graduate students of the philosophical department of Harvard University. Mr. Fox had invited him earlier in the year to present his ideas and his philosophy to this society, one of the foremost intellectual bodies in the world. The Swami had accepted the invitation, and on March 25, he spoke on the ”Philosophy of the Vedanta” in such a profound manner as to create an indelible impression on the minds of the professors. Indeed, they offered him a Chair of Eastern Philosophy in the University. But he could not accept this as he was a Sannyasin. It was a trying experience for the Swami to speak before this great critical gathering; but he was at his best, and his interpretation of his philosophy excited the most hearty commendation. Indeed, the Rev. C. C. Everett, D.D., LL.D., of Harvard University, in the introduction to the pamphlet, embodying the Swami’s address and a record of his answers to questions together with the discussion which followed before that institution, writes:
” . . . . Vivekananda has created a high degree of interest in himself and his work. There are indeed few departments of study more attractive than the Hindu thought. It is a rare pleasure to sec a form of belief that to most seems so far away and unreal as the Vedanta system, represented by an actually living and extremely intelligent believer. This system is not to be regarded merely as a curiosity, as a speculative vagary. Hegel said that Spinozism is the necessary beginning of all philosophising. This can be said even more emphatically of the Vedanta system. We Occidentals busy ourselves with the manifold. We can, however, have no understanding of the manifold, if we have no sense of die One in which the manifold exists. The reality of the One is the truth which the East may well teach us ; and we owe a debt of gratitude to Vivekananda that he has taught this lesson so effectively.”
His answers to the graduating class in philosophy at Harvard were full of penetration, wit, eloquence and philosophical freshness and vitality. In his address he had given a remarkably clear exposition of the cosmology and general principles of the Vedanta, showing the points of reconciliation between the theories of science and the theories of the Vedanta concerning matter and force. He had answered questions asked in a critical spirit appertaining to the influence of Hindu on Stoic philosophy, to caste, to the relation between Advaita and Dvaita. to the theory of the Absolute, and to the contrast between self hypnotism and Raja-Yoga. Speaking of the latter, the Swami remarked that Oriental psychology was infinitely more thorough than the Occidental, asserting that man is already hypnotised and that Yoga is an effort at de-hypnotisa-tion of self. He said, “It is the Advaitist alone that does not care to be hypnotised. His is the only system that more or less understands that hypnotism comes with every form of dualism. But the Advaitist says, throw away even the Vedas, throw away even the Personal God, throw away even (he universe, throw away even your own body and mind, and let nothing remain, in order to get rid of hypnotism perfectly. . . Asked concerning the Yoga powers, the Swami replied that the highest form of Yoga power manifested itself in a Vedanta character and in the continuous perception of divinity as exemplified in the instance of “a Yogi” (Pavhari Baba) “who was bitten by a cobra, and who fell down on the ground. In the evening he revived, and when asked what had happened he said, ‘A messenger came from my Beloved.’ All hatred and anger and jealousy had been burned out of this man. Nothing could make him react; he was infinite love all the time, and he was omnipotent in his power of love. That is the real Yogi.” He added that the highest spiritual power embodied itself in a demonstration of spiritual freedom and in a constant accession of spiritual vision and insight, the Nirvikalpa Samadhi being the climax thereof. When asked by the professors, “What is the Vedantic idea of civilisation?” the Swami made answer that true civilisation was the manifestation of the divinity within, and that that land was the most civilised wherein the highest ideals were made practical.
The Swami was not a preacher of theory. If there was any one feature of the Vedanta philosophy which he propounded, which appeared specially refreshing, it was its possibility of practical demonstration. The West was wedded to the idea that religion is a sublime theory which can be brought
into practice and made tangible for people only in another life,
but the Swami showed them the folly of this.
One of the subjects he spoke on at Boston was “The Ideals of a Universal Religion”, a religion of principles whose background should be Advaita, and which should vary according to individual temperament of separate nations and personalities.
The Swami was physically worn out by this time. He had worked to the point of exhaustion, and yet strange to say one does not find him flagging in the least. After closing his public lectures in New York in the latter part of February, 1896, the Swami consolidated his American work by organising the Vedanta movement into a definite society and by issuing his teachings in book form. Thus came into existence “The Vedanta Society of New York” of which he was the founder, a non-sectarian body with the aim of preaching and practising the Vedanta, and applying its principles to all religions. It invited members of all religious creeds and organisations to become its members without change of faith. Toleration and acceptance of all religions were its watchwords and described its general character. Its members became known as “Vedantins” and met regularly at appointed times for the purpose of carrying on co-operative and organised work, and for the study and propagation of Vedanta literature.
Some of the Swami’s great works like Raja-Yoga, Bhakti-Yoga and Karma-Yoga had already been published and had speedily attained a wide circulation. The American journals received and reviewed these works favourably, and the book Raja-Yoga aroused a considerable discussion among the psychologists and physiologists of some of the leading Universities.
More and more as time went on, the Swami found it necessary to systematise his religious ideas ; to do so he felt that he would necessarily have to reorganise the entire Hindu Philosophical thought and to group its distinctive features round the leading tenets of the Hindu religious systems, thus making it more intelligible to Western minds. He wanted to bring out according to different schools of Vedanta, the ideas of the soul and the Divinity or final goal, the relation of matter and force and the Vedantic conception of cosmology, and how they coincided with modern science. He also intended to draw up a classification of the Upanishads according to the passages which have a distinct bearing on the Advaita, the Vishishtadvaita and the Dvaita conceptions, in order to show how all of them can be reconciled. He planned to write a book, carefully working out all these ideas in a definite form. That he had this idea for a long time is shown by a letter which he wrote from England in 1896, saying that he was busy collecting passages from the various Vedas bearing on the Vedanta in its threefold aspects. For this reason he had been sending to India for the Vedanta-Sutras with the Bhashyas of all the sects, as also the Brahmanas, the Upanishads and the Puranas. When these works came, his first task, he thought, would be to remodel the Indian thought-forms therein contained so as to be acceptable to the modernised intellect of the West. And his aim was, as he himself had written long before to one of his disciples:
“To put the Hindu ideas into English and then make out of dry Philosophy and intricate Mythology and queer startling Psychology, a religioti which shall he easy, simple, popular and at the same time meet the requirements of the highest minds – is a task which only those can understand who have attempted it. The abstract Advaita must become living – poetic – in everyday life ; out of hopelessly intricate Mythology must come concrete moral forms ; and out of bewildering Yogism must come the most scientific and practical Psychology – and all this must he put into a form so that a child may grasp it. That is mv life’s work. The Lord only knows how far I shall succeed. To work we have the right, not to the fruits thereof. It is hard work, my boy, hard work!”
Yes, to be sure, the task was Herculean ; but certainly the Swami had succeeded in some measure. His experience in the West and his constant meditation on religious matters, drew out of him surprisingly original ovservations upon Indian philosophy, which culminated in his bringing about later on in India itself, a thorough restatement of Indian ideas. And it may be said without dispute that, in an especial sense he was the first of Indian philosophers to prove the Hindu spiritual ideas to be truly scientific as well; and it was he alone who has shown the philosophical truths behind the Puranic and mythological forms of Hinduism. By the time he went to Thousand Island Park lie had with him the Bhashyas of all the principal sects, and all his philosophical writings and utterances were, as it were, so many commentaries upon these, which were remarkably original in their expression. He would accept no authority as linal, “knowing full well how each commentator, in turn, had twisted the texts to suit his own meaning”. Whensoever he made comments in his classes upon the Vedas or other Hindu scriptures, he threw a whole world of light and revelation upon the texts.
One of the Swami’s purposes in organising his classes into a society, besides carrying on the spiritual work he had commenced, was particularly to bring about an interchange of ideals and ideas between the East and the West. He wanted centres of vital and continual communication between the two worlds and to make “open doors, as it were, through which the East and the West could pass freely Backand forth, without a feeling of strangeness, as from one home to another”. Already he had in his mind the plan of bringing some of his brother-disciples from India to teach and preach in America, and also of having some of his American and English disciples go to India and teach and preach there. In America it would be a religious teaching, and in India it would be a practical teaching, a message of science, industry, economics, applied sociology, organisation and co-operation. Day and night the Swami pondered on the ways and means of reconciling these two great worlds – the East and the West; and in a form of prophetic vision, he would often tell his American followers, that the time would come when the lines of demarcation, both in thought and in ideal, between the two would be obliterated.
He had long since, when he was in England, written to the Swami Saradananda that he desired him to come to the West, but for one reason or another his departure was delayed. In the spring of 1896 letters came pouring in to the Swami, beseeching him to come to England again and to systematise the work he had initiated there. He had himself felt the urgent need of doing so ; and it was this reason which actuated him to organise his New York work all the sooner. New York, being the metropolis of America, and London being the metropolis of England, he knew that if he could leave organised societies in both these cities, the work of acquainting the whole English-speaking Western world with his message would in time become a definite possibility. With this object in view, he was also training such of his disciples as he could depend upon. Thus upon Miss S. E. Waldo, who became known as “Sister Haridasi”, the Swami conferred spiritual powers and authority, saying that she alone, of all others, was best able to teach the practice and philosophy of Raja-Yoga. Then, too. he had been carefully training Swam is Kripananda, Abhayananda and Yogananda and a number of Brahmacharis into an intimate and learned acquaintance with the Vedanta philosophy, in its threefold aspects. And there were those of his disciples who were achieving a true insight into his message. Upon all these he was relying to further the cause of the Vedanta during his intended absence in England and subsequently in India, for he had made up his mind to sail in the middle of April for Europe, and, having finished his work there, to sail for his motherland.
Before leaving New York he made Mr. Francis H. Leggett, one of the wealthy and influential residents of the city, the President of the Vedanta Society. The other offices were occupied by the Swami’s initiated disciples. Among those who counted themselves as eager workers in his cause at this time were Miss Mary Phillips, a lady prominent in many circles in women’s charitable and intellectual work in the metropolis, Mrs. Arthur Smith, Mr. and Mrs. Walter Goodyear, and Miss Emma Thursby, the famour singer. The chief members of the Society had been urging upon the Swami the advisability of sending for one of his Gurubhais to conduct his classes and work in general during his absence, and the Swami, abiding by their wishes, wrote definitely to the Swami Saradananda, some time before his return to England asking him to come to London at once as the guest of Mr, E. T. Sturdy, On April 15, the Swami himself sailed for England from New York.
Though he was constantly in a whirlwind of work. Swami
Vivekananda delighted in hours of rest and leisure when he could throw off his burden of teaching and preaching; at such times, he would enjoy himself like a child. The giving of his message was, in his case, the giving of his life’s blood. Nothing interested him more in times of mental and physical weariness than to “talk nonsense” and be amused. He would take up a copy of “Punch” or some other comic paper and laugh till the tears rolled from his eyes. He demanded diversion of mind, because he knew that there was the tendency in him to drift into serious moods of thought; and those who loved him were glad at heart when they saw him joyous as a child at play.
He heartily enjoyed a good story. He never forgot any such told to him and would use it himself to the amusement of others when occasion arose. A few may be here cited. A lady whose husband was a friend of the Swami and who took him for his first sleigh ride, came to know him closely when she and the Swami were guests of Mrs. Bagley at Annisquam, in August of 1894. She writes to Sister Nivedita:
“We were friends at once. … He lectured only once at Annisquam. It was his holiday time. … He used to turn to me and say, ‘Tell me a story.’ I remember he was greatly amused by a tale about a Chinaman who had been arrested lor stealing pork and who, in reply to the Justice who remarked that he thought Chinamen did not eat pork, said, ‘Oh! Me Melican man now. Me, sir, me steal, me eat pork, me everything.’ How often I have heard Vivekananda say, sotto voce, ‘Me Melican man.’ These things would seem trifling to anyone who does not know the Swami as you do. But, nothing which concerned him could seem trivial or of poor report to you, I am sure.
“I had lived for three years on an Indian Reservation in Canada. The Swami was never tired of listening to anecdotes about the Red men. One I remember amused him greatly. An Indian whose wife had just died came to the Parsonage for some nails for her coffin. While waiting he asked my cook if she would marry him! Naturally she was very indignant, and in reply to her sorrowful refusal the man only said, ‘Wait, you see.’ The following Sunday much to our amusement he came and sat upon one of the gate posts. He had a feather stuck jauntily in his hat, and hair oil, of which he had been most prodigal, was trickling down his cheeks. It happened that the Swami was giving sitting for his portrait just then, and we went to the Studio to see how the portrait was progressing. Just as I entered the Studio a little oil ran down the cheek of the portrait, and the Swami seeing it said instantly, ‘Getting ready to marry the cook!’, . . Knowing the Swami as you did, you must have realised what an exquisite sense ol humour he had. …”
But of all other stories, two which he relished most and which sent him into fits of laughter, were those respectively of a new Christian missionary to a cannibal tribe, and that of the “darky” clergyman, preaching on “Creation”. As to the former: There was once a Christian missionary newly arrived in a far-off island inhabited by cannibals. He proceeded to the chief of the place and asked him, “Well, how did you like my predecessor?” The reply was, “He was simply de – li – cious.” And as for the “darky” preacher: He was shouting out, “Yo see, God
was making Adam, and he was a makin im out o’ mud. And when he had a-got im made, he stucks im up again a fence to dry. And then – “. “Hold on, there, preacher,” suddenly cried out a learned listener. “What abouts dat ere fence? Whos a-made dat fence?” The preacher replied sharply, “Now youse listen here. Sam Jones. Don’t youse be a gwining to ask such ere questions. Youse’ll ere smash up all theology.”
Great souls are not always serious. This power of complete relaxation was as much a part of the Swami’s greatness as were his intellectual powers and spiritual realisations. One would like to know the personal temperament, the personal incident, the human side of a teacher as well as his words of Revelation. Those who live in the personal environment of great men love them for their human qualities, and it was so with the disciples and admirers of Swami Vivekananda. They made every effort to divert his mind and found that the diversion made him deliver his message all the clearer. Several of his most intimate friends, persons of position and wealth in the Western world, understood his need for rest and recreation, and invited him to spend short holidays at their residences* There he was allowed absolute personal freedom. Did he desire to talk, they would listen with rapt attention. Did he desire to sing the songs of his own land, he could do so freely. If he sat in silent abstraction they left him to his mood. Times were when he would break the silence of days in a rhapsody of divine eloquence ; and then again he would talk on matters that required no mental concentration. After giving some lecture that throbbed with spiritual power and realisation he would often dance in glee saying, “Thank God, it is over! ” He would come down unexpectedly from the mountain-tops of insight to the levels of childlike simplicity in a moment.
With those in the West with whom he was particularly free he would say frankly whatever came into his mind. He called them oftentimes by familiar names as he did Mr. and Mrs. Hale, whom he styled “Father Pope” and “Mother Church” ; another he called “Yum”, “Jojo”, and so on. When they prepared some delicious recipe he would look pleadingly at it, his eyes beaming with joy – and then, eat with his fingers as he was wont to do in India, saying that he liked to do so and that he enjoyed it more in that way. At first it was shocking to the Westerners ; but when they understood, it gave them pleasure to let him have his own way. They would be specially amused when in the privacy of their homes he would take oil his collar and throw off the boots which made him uncomfortable and slip his feet into a pair of house-slippers ; and as to cuffs, they were an abomination in his eyes. The Sannyasin nature in him would resent at times all conventions and etiquette. His indifference 10 money was characteristic. It is told by his American disciples how he would often look with dread upon money he had received from friends for his own use, and would give it away freely to the poor or to those in need. Or it might be that he would immediately purchase presents for his friends and disciples, as was the case at Thousand Island Park when he was given a handsome purse at the end of his class work. The whole sum was spent in this way.
The Swami demanded personal freedom on all occasions ; if he did not receive it, he shook himself free. He could not tolerate to be patronised ; and when a certain woman of wealth endeavoured to make him do as she desired in matters of plans and arrangements, he disrupted them all. She would be irritated for the time being and then later on say of him laughingly and lovingly, “At the last moment he upsets all my plans for him. He must have his own way. He is just like a mad bull in a china-shop.” While he would go to any length when it was a matter of service or loyalty, he never allowed anyone to compel him to do certain things. And he certainly displayed wonderful patience with some, whom he believed, in spite of personal irritation, to be instruments of the Lord in the furthering of His cause. For otherwise, his first impulse would be to throw them overboard. He could not tolerate restraint.
There were times when he would say, “Oh! The body is a terrible bondage!” or “How I wish that I could ‘hide myself for ever! ‘ ” and all would see the spirit in him as though chained in agony to the fetters of the flesh. Such moments often came to him, as for example, when he wrote his poems “My Play is Done”, and “The Song of the Sannyasin” ; and here and there in scores of his letters this is evident. To cite from a letter to Mi’s. Bull:
“I have a note-book which has travelled with me all over the world. I find therein these words written seven years ago: ‘Now to seek a corner and lay myself down to die!’ Yet all this Karma remained. I hope I have worked it out.
“It appears like a hallucination that I was in these childish dreams of doing this and doing that. I am getting out of them. . . . Perhaps these mad desires were necessary to bring me over to this country. And I thank the Lord for the experience.”
When his disciples found him in such moods they feared that the Hour of Deliverance might come on suddenly and the body drop. So they rejoiced to see him in his lighter moods.
An illustrative incident of the Swami’s human side as told by one of his disciples happened in the city of Detroit. On a certain occasion he went to the house of one of his admirers and, with that unique sense of freedom and frankness which was his, asked to be allowed to cook an Indian meal himself. The request was immediately granted, and then to the amusement of everyone present, he gathered from his pockets some score or more of tiny packets filled with finely-grounded condiments and spices. These had been sent all the way from India, and wherever he went these packets went with him. At one time, one of his choicest and most prized possessions was a bottle of chutney some gentleman had thoughtfully sent him from Madras. His Western disciples delighted to have him cook his own dishes in their kitchens. They helped him also in this, and thus time would pass by in merriment and making new experiments. He would make the dishes so hot with spices that they were not palatable to a Western taste, and many times the preparations took so long that when the food was ready to be served the party was literally ravenous. Then there would be much talk and laughter, and he would take the keenest delight in seeing how the Western tongue stood the hot-spiced dishes of distant Hindusthan. They were, no doubt, soothing to his high-strung temperament and tired nerves, but certainly not “good for his liver” as he insisted they were. This human side of the Swami bound his disciples to him in deep human love.
Nothing he enjoyed so much at times as to be seated cozily near a fire in winter-time and plunge into reminiscences of his early days. Or he would spend the morning or evening in reading comic papers and magazines from cover to cover. As for newspapers he betrayed the reporter s instinct in reading only the headlines. This was his diversion ; but at any moment the saint and prophet in him might emerge. One disciple who could not understand him at first, unfortunately being in his presence only in his times of recreation, was one day suddenly made conscious of the Swami’s true nature. This disciple saw the Swami enjoying himself heartily. But when he asked him a question concerning religion, the countenance of the Swami changed instantly. Fun gave place to the revelation of the highest spiritual truths. He says, “It seemed as though the Swami had of a sudden cast aside the layer of that consciousness in which he had been then enjoying himself and made me aware of other layers behind the network of changing personality/* But it was more than the power to transfigure his consciousness suddenly from fun to holiness and Jnana that he manifested. He was actually possessed of a dual consciousness. Whilst he might be playing, as it were, on the surface of his personality, one was made aware at the same moment of the mighty flow of the immense depths beneath.
At the end of his American work he was thoroughly tired. Indeed, after he had made a railway journey it seemed for days as though the wheels of the trains revolved with their noise in his brain : yet his head was always clear, though at times he grew exceedingly nervous. The strain of the years of his Sadhana in the East and teaching in the West, had been too much for him. His friends feared a complete breakdown and, as a matter of fact, slowly but surely his body was failing, though he himself was the last to be conscious of this, and all the time worked harder than ever. His friends could not help seeing the cost to the body of delivering his spiritual message. They knew that he had given himself wholly and unstintingly for the good of those who made his message the gospel of their lives.
As may be readily imagined there were many aspects of the Swami’s personality and teachings during his stay in America prior to his second visit to England, which must remain unknown for ever. According to his disciples, “Each hour of the day there would be some new idea, some new human sweetness, some illuminating thought on the vastness of the soul and the divinity of man, some new, boundless hope, some startlingly original plan that would radiate from his personality.” One disciple says, “Simply to walk on the city streets with him, meant to be translated to marvellous worlds of thought or power suddenly from the sheerest fun.” Still another records, “He always made one feel that he was all spirit and not body, and this in spite of the fact that his magnificent physical frame irresistibly attracted the attention of every one.” Another disciple says:
“It would be impossible for me to describe the overwhelming force of Swamiji’s presence. He could rivet attention upon himself: and when lie spoke in all seriousness and intensity – though it seems wellnigh incredible – there were some among his hearers who were literally exhausted. The subtlety of his thoughts and arguments swept them off their feet. In one case I know of a man who was forced to rest in bed for three days as the result of a nervous shock received by a discussion with the Swami.
His personality was at once awe-inspiring and sublime. He had the faculty of literally annihilating one if lie so chose.”
On many an occasion he would draw out one who differed from him, only to bewilder and confuse him. And yet these very ones who were thus “prostrated by that radiant power” attested most to his sweetness. They said, “He is a marvellous combination of sweetness and irresistible force, verily a child and a prophet in one.” Indeed, if all the descriptions of his ideas and personality at this period were recorded, they would of themselves constitute a complete volume.
All through his American work his mind was full with plans. From the very first it was his intention, when he had once gained a learned and extensive hearing and established his mission on a solid basis, to found a “Temple Universal”, as he styled it, wherein should congregate, in harmony, all the religious sects of the world, worshipping but one symbol, “om”, which represents the Absolute. But his intense, all-absorbing work in founding his own Vedanta movement prevented him from carrying out this noble ideal.
Still another plan of his about which he had written to Mrs. Bull in the beginning of the year 1895, was to purchase lands in the Catskill mountains to the extent of one hundred and eight acres, where his students could go for Sadhana during the summer holidays and build camps or cottages as they liked, until permanent buildings could be erected. He said that he would himself contribute the funds to buy the land.
It is a painful and unpleasant task to have constantly to revert to a recital of the slanders that were frequently heaped upon the Swami by self-seeking and malicious parties, but the demands of biographical treatment would not be fulfilled were this not done. The greatness of the Swami looms up larger on the horizon of true judgment when one knows what tremendous obstacles he was forced to encounter and how much suffering he experienced, as a monk, by the many lies circulated against his purity and temperance.
There were two occasions in particular during his American work when his character was assailed. Maddened to desperation by the official reports that “because of Vivekananda’s success and teaching, the contributions to the Indian missionary funds had decreased in one year by as much as one million pounds”, certain zealot missionaries, circulated the story that “because of Vivekananda, Mrs. Bagley (the wife of the ex-Governor of Michigan) has had to dismiss a servant-girl ; he is dreadfully intemperate.” Fortunately there are in existence three letters from the Bagley family which conclusively deny such malicious statements. A letter of the Swami written on March 21, 1895, to Mrs. Ole Bull concerning these incidents is also in the possession of his disciples ; it reads:
“I am astonished to hear the scandals the Ramabai circle are indulging in about me. Among others, one item is that Mrs. Bagley of Detroit had to dismiss a servant-girl on account of my bad character! ! I Don’t you see, Mrs. Bull, that however a man may conduct himself, there will always be persons who will invent the blackest lies about him. At Chicago I had such things spread every day against me.
“And these women are invariably the very Christian of Christians! …”
Other letters similar to this, which the Swami wrote at this time were filled with the bitterest indignation against the vicious slanderers who would even be willing to let their “souls go to
hell itself” rather than let “this d-d Hindu”, as some called him, “interfere with our work”. The Swami could not realise why they should invent these charges against him. He was at first taken aback, but he took hope amidst the blackest despair when he learned through his friends that these persons had no prestige and standing amongst honest Christians, that they were regarded as “blue-nosed”, “hard-shelled” and “soft-shelled” fanatics. The Swami marked well that none of the missionary bodies of standing and education, such as “The Oxford Mission”, militated against him. What pleased him most during his stay in England, was to meet only with the kindest and most sympathetic treatment from the ecclesiastics there. But the testimony of Mrs. Bagley herself and of her daughter, is particularly in point. Writing to a lady friend from Annisquam, Mass., on June 22, 1894, Mrs. Bagley says:
“You write of my dear friend, Vivekananda. I am glad of an opportunity to express my admiration of his character, and it makes me most indignant that any one should call him in question. He has given us in America higher ideas of life than we have ever had before. In Detroit, an old conservative city, in all the Clubs he is honoured as no one has ever been, and I only feel that all who say one word against him are jealous of his greatness and his fine spiritual perceptions ; and yet how can they be? He does nothing to make them so.
“He has been a revelation to Christians, … he has made possible for us all a diviner and more noble practical life. As a religious teacher and an example to all I do not know of his equal. It is so wrong and so untrue to say that lie is intemperate. All who have been brought in contact with him day by day, speak enthusiastically of his sterling qualities of character, and men in Detroit who judge most critically, and who are unsparing, admire and respect him. … He has been a guest in iny house more than three weeks, and my sons as well as my son-in-law and my entire family found Swami Vivekananda a gentleman always, most courteous and polite, a charming companion and an evcr-welcomc guest. I have invited him to visit 11s at my summer-home here at Annisquam, and in my family lie will always be honoured and welcomed. I am really sorry for those who say aught against him, more than I am angry, for they know so little what they are talking about. He has been with Mr. and Mrs. Hale of Chicago much of the time while in that city. I think that has been his home. They invited him first as guest and later were unwilling to part with him. They are Presbyterians ; . . . cultivated and refined people, and they admire, respect and love Vivekananda. He is a strong, noble human being, one who walks with God. He is as simple and trustful as a child. In Detroit I gave him an evening reception, inviting ladies and gentlemen, and two weeks afterwards he lectured to invited guests in my parlour. … I had included lawyers, judges, ministers, army-officers, physicians and business men with their wives and daughters. Vivekananda talked two hours on ‘The Ancient Hindu Philosophers and What They Taught’. All listened with intense interest to the end. Wherever he spoke, people listened gladly and said, ‘I never heard man speak like that.’ He docs not antagonise, bur lifts people up to a higher level – they see something beyond man-made creeds and denominational names, and they feel one with him in their religious beliefs.
“Every human being would be made better by knowing him and living in the same house with him. … I want every one in America to know Vivekananda, and if India lias more such let her send them to us. …”
Again in another letter, dated March 20, 1895, she writes in reply to the same lady:
“. . . Let my first word be that all this about Swami Vivekananda is an absolute falsehood from beginning to end. Nothing could be more false. We all enjoyed every day of the six weeks he spent with us. . . . He
was invited by the different clubs of gentlemen in Detroit, and dinners were given him in beautiful homes so that greater numbers might meet him and talk with him and hear him talk . . . and everywhere and at all times he was, as he deserved to be, honoured and respected. No one can know him without respecting his integrity and excellence of character and his strong religious nature. At Annisquam last summer I had a cottage and we wrote Vivekananda, who was in Boston, inviting him again to visit us there, which he did. lemairiing three weeks, not only conferring a favour upon us, but a great pleasure I am sure, to friends who had cottages near us. My servants. I have had many years and they are all still with me. Some of them went with us to Annisquam, the others were at home. You can sec how wholly without foundation are all these stories. Who this woman in Detroit is. of whom you speak, I do not know. I only know this that every word of her story is as untrue and false as possible. . . . Wc all know Vivekananda. Who are they that speak so falsely?’ . .
This dignified and powerful refutation of the scandals circulated against the Swami was supplemented by another letter written on the following day by Mrs. Bagiev’s daughter (Helen Bagiev). It reads:
I am glad to know that the story was not circulated by R—. If I
find it possible I wish to see Mrs. S – – and ask her what her authority for such a statement was. I shall do it quietly of course, but I am going to find out for once, if possible, who starts these lies about Vivekananda. These things travel fast, and if once one is uprooted, perhaps these women will stop to think before they circulate a story so readily. If only they would investigate them they would find how false they all are. . .
The Swami, as a matter of fact, knew too well, that he had little cause to feel either himself or his work seriously harmed by the many attacks on his personality. Then, he had the satisfaction of knowing that thousands of others regarded and knew him as a man of absolute purity and unparalleled integrity. Besides, from every quarter of America reports of his teaching and of its influence came pouring in. The only occasion when he was seriously incensed, was when certain parties, securing the photograph of his Master, managed to have it printed in one of the leading papers of a large Mid-Western city, together with slurring comments upon his appearance and upon Hinduism and Hindu Yogis in general. Then he was heard to exclaim, “Oh! This is blasphemy! “
In striking contrast to these unpleasantnesses, he had as a real consolation the thought that he was reverenced and loved by the finest minds in the land. Even before his public reception at the Harvard University in 1896, he had been received privately in September of 1894 by some members of the University faculty and by many of the graduate philosophical students. Following close upon this, the Columbia University offered him the Chair of Sanskrit, which honour he had to decline because he was a Sannyasin.
It was at this time that the Swami met the distinguished Professor William James of Harvard at dinner at the residence of Mrs. Ole Bull. After dinner the Swami and the Professor drew together in earnest and subdued conversation. It was midnight when they rose from their long discourse. Eager to know the result of the meeting of these two great minds, Mrs. Bull asked, “Well, Swami, how did you like Professor James?” He replied, in a sort of abstracted way, “A very nice man, a very nice man ! ” laying emphasis on the word nice. The next day the Swami handed a letter to Mrs. Bull with the casual remark, “You may be interested in this.” Mrs. Bull read and to her amazement saw that Professor James, in inviting the Swami to meet him at his own residence for dinner a few days later, had addressed him as “Master”. The tribute of Professor James’ regard for the Swami is evinced, on many occasions, in his writings, and he speaks of him deferentially as “that paragon of Vedantists”. In his classical work, The Variety of Religious Experience, he specially refers to the Swami in connection with monistic mysticism. In his celebrated essay, The Energies of Men, he speaks of a University professor who underwent the Raja-Yoga practices as a cure for nervous disorders, and who received thereby not only physical benefit but intellectual and spiritual illumination as well. There are many who believe that in this essay Professor James was describing his own experiences of the Raj a-Yoga practices as instructed by the Swami.
It must always be remembered that the Swami met influential personages of other fields of thought, besides the religious, and they were charmed with his knowledge of science and art,
As early as September 1893, immediately following his appearance at the Parliament, he was introduced to a group of noted scientists at a vegetarian dinner given especially in his honour by Professor Elisha Grey, the electrical inventor, and his wife in their beautiful residence. Highland Park, Chicago. It was at the time that the Electrical Congress was being held, and amongst other distinguished guests who were invited to meet the Swami, there were Sir William Thompson, afterwards Lord Kelvin, Professor Helmholtz and Ariton Ilopitallia. The Swami’s knowledge of electricity amazed the scientists, and his shining repartees bearing on the matters of science were greeted with sincere pleasure.
There were, of course, scores of lectures given by the Swami, now lost, apart from those which have been incorporated in the Complete Works as belonging to the period of his first stay in America. In 1893 he gave a series of lectures in and around Chicago, and the whole of the next year was spent in lecturing throughout the country. In 1894, he made his home for a time with the Guernsey family, the members of which regarded him as “Master” and opened up for him numerous opportunities for holding classes and conversaziones. It was at this time that he met Dr. Lyman Abbot, and was also invited to dine with the editors of the Outlook. The lectures known as the “Barber Lectures” were given in 1895 under the patronage of Mrs. Barber, a society woman of Boston. At Annisquam, where he was twice the guest of Mrs. Bagley of Michigan, taking short holidays there in 1894 and in 1895, he gave one public lecture and a number of conversaziones. From January to April 1895, he gave numerous lectures at his own quarters in New York, and in the following month concluded his public lectures in Mott’s Memorial Building with “The Science of Religion” and “The Rationale of Yoga”, his leading thought being “Unity in Variety is the Plan of Nature”, thus reconciling in one sentence the opposing thought-systems of the monistic and pluralistic outlook. Among the many receptions accorded him during his stay in New York, several of the more successful ones were inaugurated by Miss Phillips.
But the fearless outspokennessof the Swami often alienated that general approval for which so many public workers slave and sacrifice their true views and their principles. And, after all, he found that the American public, though at first it might appear to resent, would afterwards regard with great admiration one who dared speak openly of what he felt were the drawbacks of American civilisation. It so happened that he once spoke in Boston before a large audience gathered to hear him on “My Master”. Full of the fire of renunciation that he was, when he saw before him the audience composed, for the most part, of worldly-minded men and women lacking in spiritual sympathy and earnestness, he felt that it would be a desecration to speak to them of his understanding of, and his real feelings of devotion for Shri Ramakrishna. So, instead, he launched out on a terrible denunciation of the vulgar, physical and materialistic ideas which underlay the whole of Western civilisation. Hundreds of people left the hall abruptly, but in no way affected, he went on to the end. The next morning the papers were filled with varying criticisms, some highly favourable, others severely critical in their analysis of what he had said, but all commenting on his fearlessness, sincerity and frankness. When he himself read the report of his speech, he was stung with remorse. He wept bitterly for thus denouncing others and said, “My Master could not see the evil side of a man. He had nothing but love even for his worst vilifiers. It is nothing short of sacrilege on my part to abuse others and wound their feelings while speaking about my Master. Really I have not understood Shri Ramakrishna and am totally unfit to speak about him! ” But that he ever denounced American women, as some of his bitter antagonists have said, is a gross libel. The Swami’s own words live to testify to his high opinion concerning them and to his sincere gratitude for the uniform kindness they had shown him.
One of the interesting lectures that the Swami gave during his visit to Boston at the latter part of 1894, when he was the guest of Mrs. Ole Bull, was on “The Ideals of Indian Women”. At her special solicitation he gave this lecture to the women of Cambridge, a suburb of Boston. This address which was deep, stirring and patriotic, dwelt on the beauty of character and the ideals of Indian Womanhood in general, and the idea of Indian Motherhood in particular. It was as well, though unconsciously, a reply to the remarks which many ignorant or self-interested persons had circulated concerning the “degraded” condition of Indian Womanhood. So much impressed was the gathering of prominent ladies with the Swami’s address that in the time of the approaching Christmas they sent, unbeknown to the Swami himself, the following letter to his mother, in far-off India, together with a beautiful picture of the Child Jesus in the lap of the Virgin Mary:
“The Mother of Swami Vivekananda,
“At this Christmas tide, when the gift of Mary’s son to the world is celebrated and rejoiced over with us, it would seern the time of remembrance. We, who have your son in our midst, send you greetings. His generous service to men, women and children in our midst was laid at your feet by him, in an address lie gave us the other day on the Ideals of Motherhood in India. The worship of his mother will be to all who heard him an inspiration and an uplift.
“Accept, dear Madam, our grateful recognition of your life and work in and through your son. And may it be accepted by you as a slight token of remembrance to serve in, its use as a tangible reminder that the world is coming to its true inheritance fiom God, of Brotherhood and Unity.”
Referring to this lecture Mrs. Bull has written:
“… Having given from the Vedas, from Sanskrit literature and the dramas these Ideals, and having cited the laws of today favourable to the women of India, he paid his filial homage to his own mother as having enabled him to do the best he had done, by her life of unselfish love and purity, that caused him by his very inheritance to choose the life of a monk.”
It was conspicuous in the Swami that wherever he went he paid the highest tribute to his mother, whensoever the occasion arose. One of his friends, recalling the few happy weeks spent as a fellow guest in the house of a common friend writes:
“He spoke often of his mother. I remember his saying that she had wonderful self-control, and that lie had never known any woman who could fast so long. She had once gone without food, he said, for as many as fourteen days together. And it was not uncommon for his followers to hear such words upon his lips as, ‘It was my mother who inspired me to this. Her character was a constant inspiration to my life and work’.”
Of the many descriptions of the Swami in America, the following extract from a newspaper report is interesting:1
“One day, at an unfashionable place by the sea, the professor was seen crossing the lawn between the boarding-house and his cottage accompanied by a man in a long red coat. The coat, which had something of a priestly cut, descended far below the man’s knees, and was girded around his waist with a thick cord of the same reddish orange tint. He walked with a strange, shambling gait, and yet there was a commanding dignity and impressiveness in the carriage of his neck and bare head that caused everyone in sight to stop and look at him ; he moved slowly, with the swinging tread of one who had never hastened, and in his great dark eyes was the beauty of an alien civilisation which might – should time and circumstances turn it into opposition – become intolerably repulsive. He was dark, about the colour of a light quadroon, and his full lips, which in a man of Caucasian race would have been brilliant scarlet, had a tint of bluish purple. His teeth were regular, white, and sometimes cruel, but his beautiful expressive eyes and the proud wonderful carriage of his head, the swing and grace of the heavy crimson tassels that hung from the end of his sash, made one forget that he was too heavy for so young a man, and that long sitting on the floor had visited him with the fate of the tailor.
“… He seemed very young, even younger than his twenty-nine years, and as he seated himself he covered his legs carefully with his flowing robe, like a woman or a priest; but the hoary ancient turn of his thought belied his childlike manner.
“… And then, having said his say, the Swami was silent …. Occasionally he cast his eye up to the roof and repeated softly ‘Shiva, Shiva, Shiva!’ . . . And a current of powerful feeling seemed to be flowing like molten lava beneath the silent surface of this strange being ….
“He stayed days among them, keenly interested in all practical things ; his efforts to eat strange food were heroic and sometimes disastrous to himself. He was constantly looking about for something which would widen the possibilities of feeding his people in times of famine. Our ways seemed to inspire him with a sort of horror, meat-eating cannibals that we seemed to be! But he concealed it, either with absolute dumbness, or by a courteous flow of language which effectually hid his thoughts.
1 This was written by Mrs. John Henry Wright and related to the week-end Swamiji spent with the Wrights at Annisquam at the end of August, 1893.
“He had been brought up amidst polemics, and his habit of argument was mainly Sorratic, beginning insidiously and simply by a story, or clear statement of some incontestable fact, and then from that deriving strange and unanswerable things. All through, his discourses abounded in picturesque illustrations and beautiful legends. To work, to get on in the world, in fact, any measure of temporal success seemed to him entirely beside the subject. He had been trained to regard the spiritual life as the real thing of this world! Love of God and love of man! . . . ‘The love of the Hindu’, lie told us, ‘goes further than the love of the Christian, for that stops at man ; but the religion of Buddha goes on towards the beasts of the field and every creeping thing that has life.’
“At sixteen he had renounced the world and spent his time among men who rejoiced in these things and looked forward to spending day after day on the banks of the Ganges, talking of the higher life.
“When someone suggested to him that Christianity was a saving power, he opened his gnat dark eyes upon him and said. ‘If Christianity is a saving power in itself, why has it not saved the Ethiopians. the Abyssi-liians-” lie also arraigned our own crimes, the horror of women on the stage, the frightful immorality in our streets, our drunkenness, our thieving, our political degeneracy, the murdering in our West, the lynching in our South, and wc, remembering his own Thugs, were still too delicate to mention them.
“. . . He cared for Thomas ft Kcmpis more than for any other writer and had translated a part of the ‘Imitation of Christ’ into Bengali and written an introduction to it ; as for receiving the Stigmata, he spoke of it as the natural result of an agonising love of God. The teaching of the Vedas, constant and beautiful, lie applied to every event in life, quoting a few verses and then translating, and with the translation of the story giving the meaning. His mouth, also, was full of wonderful proverbs. ‘Of what, use is the knowledge that is locked away in books?’ he said, in speaking of the memories of Hindu boys.
“Himself a Hindu monk, he told, once, of a time when he turned into a forest, a trackless forest, because he felt that God was leading him, of how he went on for three days, starving and how he was more perfectly happy than he had ever been before because he felt that he was entirely in the hands of God. ‘When my time comes,’ he said. ‘I shall like to go up the mountain and there, by the Ganges, lay myself down,and with the water singing over me I shall go to sleep, and above me will tower the
Himalayas – men have gone mad for those mountains!’ There was once a monk, he told us, who
went far up into the mountains and saw them everywhere around him ; and above his head towered their great white crests. Far below, thousands of feet, was the Ganges – narrow stream at the foot of a precipice. ‘Shall I then like a dog die in my bed when all this beauty is around me?’ the monk thought, and he plunged into the chasm.
“The Hindu monks have no monasteries, no property. . . . According to him, the monks were not required to do penance, or to worship. They were, in short, minor deities to the Hindu people ; but yet the Swami was wonderfully unspoiled and simple, claiming nothing for himself, playing with the children, twirling a stick between his fingers with laughing skill and glee at their inability to equal him.
“All the people of that little place were moved and excited by this young man, in a manner beyond what might be accounted for by his coming from a strange country and a different people. He had another power, an unusual ability to bring his hearers into vivid sympathy with his own point of view. It repelled, in some cases, however, as strongly as it attracted, hut whether in support or opposition, it was difficult to keep a cool head or a level judgment when confronted with him.
“All the people of all degrees were interested ; women’s eyes blazed and their cheeks were red with excitement ; even the children of the village talked of what he had said to them : all the idle summer boarders trooped to hear him, and all the artists longingly observed him and wanted to paint him.
“lie told strange stories as ordinary people would mention the wonders of electricity, curious feats of legerdemain, and talcs of monks who had lived one hundred, or one hundred and thirty years ; but so-called occult societies drew down his most magnificent contempt. … He spoke of holy men who at a single glance converted hardened sinners and detected men’s inmost thoughts. . . . But these things were trifles ; always his thoughts turned hack to his people. He lived to raise them up and make them better and had come this long way in the hope of gaining help to teach them, to be practically more efficient. We hardly knew what he needed: money, if money would do it ; tools, advice, new ideas. And for this he was willing to die to-morrow. . . .
“His great heroine was the dreadful Rani of the Indian Mutiny, who led her troops in person. . . . Whenever he mentioned the Rani he would weep, with tears streaming down his face. ‘That woman was a goddess,’ he said, ‘a Devi. When overcome, she fell on her sword and died like a man.’
“In quoting from the Upanishads his voice was most musical. He would quote a verse in Sanskrit with intonations and then translate it into beautiful English, of which he had a wonderful command. And, in his mystical religion, he seemed perfectly and unquestionably happy.
. . And yet, when they gave him money, it seemed as if some injury had been done him and some disgrace put upon him. ‘Of all the worries I have ever had.’ he said, as he left us, ‘the greatest has been the care of this money!’ His horrified reluctance to take it haunted us.
He could not be made to see why he might not wander on in this country, as in his own, without touching a medium of exchange, which he considered disgraceful, and the pain he showed when it was made clear to him that without money he could not even move, hung round us for days after he left, as if wc had hurt some innocent thing or had wounded a soul. . . . And we saw him leave us after that one little week of knowing him, with the fear that clutches the heart when a beloved, gifted, passionate child fares forth, unconscious, in an untried world.”
This beautiful and interesting description of the Swami is only one out of hundreds that were written of him at the time* All his friends recognised in him “A Grand Seigneur” as Mrs* Leggett so aptly remarks. And this lady says, “In all my experience I have met but two celebrated personages that could make one feel perfectly at ease without themselves for an instant losing their own dignity – one the German Emperor, the other, Swami Vivekananda.” Truly he was, as the American papers spoke of him, “The Lordly Monk”.
Surveying the history of his work, one sees Swami Vivekananda moving through the West as some mighty, glorious and effulgent light. A Plato in thought, a modem Savonarola in his fearless outspokenness, and adored as a Master and as a Prophet, the Swami moved amongst his disciples as some great Bodhi-sattva amongst his devotees. Some looked upon him even as a Buddha, others as a Christ, some as a Rishi of the Upanishads, whilst others as a Shankaracharya ; and all regarded him as the embodiment of the Highest Consciousness. And certainly, when one listens to the words that were heralded in the tense stillness of that hour which followed his reception at the Parliament of Religions, one can only think of him as one speaking with Authority, having realised the Divinity he preached. His hands, raised in continual benediction, his voice, murmuring or thundering, as it might be, the Gospel of the Highest Consciousness, his face beaming with love and goodwill, Swami Vivekananda lives in the memory of America as the Man with a Message for the West, “One who walked with God”.