I have a message to the West as Buddha had a message to the East –
When in the spring of 1950 I started looking through old newspapers in the New York, Brooklyn and Boston Public Libraries for articles about Swami Vivekananda, I had no idea that my search would lead to the writing of a book about the Swami’s life in America. I was living at the time in New York City, and a fellow member of The Vedanta Society of Northern California had suggested that I hunt for and have photostated whatever articles might find about the Swami. This seemed not only a useful but an absorbing occupation. It was, moreover, a rewarding one, for from time to time I came upon news reports not mentioned in the biographies of Swami Vivekananda and perhaps not previously known. Such discoveries seemed an end in themselves ; I did not look or see beyond them,
A year later, when I was still living in New York and still turning the yellowed pages of newspapers, a member of the Vedanta Society of Northern California had by chance learned that when Swami Vivekananda had visited Salem, Massachusetts, in the days before the Parliament of Religions he had left behind his trunk, his cane and his shawl at the home of a Mrs. Woods. As I have told in Chapter One of this book, I forthwith went to Salem and in the Essex Institute found that the Swami had not only visited the town but had lectured there more than once. The newspaper reports of those lectures constituted what may be called a “find”, for they pertained to a period of the Swami’s life in America which had heretofore been obscure. On making this discovery, two things became clear to me: one. that there was no doubt a great deal of material regarding the Swami in various libraries throughout the United States : and two. that such material should be searched for and, when found, made available to his devotees.
Thenceforth I set to work in earnest. New material began to pour in. Some came as a result of my efforts to unearth it, some came totally unsought, and all served to throw new light upon the Swami’s life from August. 1893, to April, 1895 – a period of which we have had little detailed knowledge and with which this book is concerned.
It was not,however,until the early part of 1955 that I was
able to present this material to the public through a series of articles in Prabuddha Bharata (March-September, 1955). But even during the writing of these articles new material continued to come into my hands, and it soon became evident that its presentation called not for a series of magazine articles (which gave signs of continuing indefinitely) but for a book. Thus, in the fall of 1955, five and a half years after my first search for Swami Vivekananda’s name in a New York newspaper, the present book was undertaken. (The seven Prabuddha Bharata articles with minor changes and the addition of more material constitute Chapters One to Five.)
Truly speaking, this book cannot be called a biography ; rather, it is, as it is intended to be, primarily a source book of the period it covers. First, my purpose in writing it was to present every scrap of new material that I had found or that, in one way or another, had been made available to me. A biographer necessarily selects his material, using it to highlight or to illustrate various aspects of his subject. I have made no such selection, for in sharing this new material with the Swami’s devotees I did not feel that I should take the responsibility of withholding any part of it. As a consequence, I have included news articles that are sometimes repetitious and sometimes of seeming insignificance. I believe, however, that the serious student of Swami Vivekananda will not find this lack of discrimination a fault, for to him everything regarding the Swami is of interest and of value. The second reason this book cannot be called a biography is that, with the exception of the first section of Chapter Thirteen, in which I have made free use of known material, I have avoided the inclusion of facts about and contemporaneous evaluations of Swami Vivekananda which are already known. My narrative, therefore, is not complete or exhaustive, as a biography should be. I have, for instance, given only slight attention to the fact that throughout this period the Swami was organizing and guiding his Indian work through a voluminous correspondence.
But although I have endeavored to restrict myself to the presentation of new discoveries, I must admit that in order to present them in their true light and significance I have placed them against the background of the Swami’s life and thought
as well as against that of the times to which they pertain.When
necessary, I have referred to some Known facts and have, to that extent, drawn upon published biographies, letters and memoirs. I nave also, in Chapter Two, made free use of the published histories of the Parliament of Religions – particularly “Neely’s History of the Parliament of Religions,” edited by Walter R. Houghton, and “The World’s Parliament of Religions'” by John H. Barrows – for without as detailed a picture as possible of this important episode in the Swami’s life in America, the significance of the material in the subsequent chapters would be obscure.
There are two more reasons for my having overstepped the bounds of a source book or a mere compilation of newspaper reports and other material. First, in some instances the available newspaper reports are not self-explanatory and, taken at their face value, put Swami Vivekananda in a somewhat false light. This is particularly true of the reports which relate to the controversies the Swami was forced to engage in while in America. I was faced with the choice of either suppressing this material and thereby suppressing important and revealing incidents in the Swami’s life, or of presenting it in conjunction with certain facts and explanations by the light of which it could be properly understood and evaluated. The second course was, I felt, owed to Swami Vivekananda, and in choosing it I have of necessity devoted several pages to explanatory passages (in, for instance, Chapter Eight, section IV and Chapter Twelve, section IV).
Second, in making a study of Swami Vivekananda’s life and thought in America, I found that certain theories regarding his American mission which had been held by his biographers and devotees were not supported by fact. New interpretations, based on new findings and also on a re-examination of the Swami’s published letters and other writings, seemed to be in order. I have, therefore, devoted four sections (Chapter Eight, section V : Chapter Thirteen, sections II, III and IV) to a detailed analysis of the Swami’s mission in the West.
In my endeavor to present the new material against its historical background, I have included a candid picture of Swami Vivekananda’s antagonists, the Christian missionaries of the 1890s. It is perhaps unfortunate that I have had to recount the disagreeable controversies of a past decade. But since this book
was written in an effort to present as many facts about the
Swami’s life in America as I was able to discover, I could not with good conscience onfit or suppress relevant history. It may also be said that the Swami’s attitude toward and conclusions regarding the activities of Christian missionaries in India can still prove helpful in solving a problem that remains, to say the least, troublesome. In fact, I believe that Swami Vivekananda’s approach not only to this particular problem but to India’s many other difficulties is still pertinent today and will continue to be pertinent for years to come. From what I have learned of current Indian thought, it appears that a number of modem Hindus consider the Swami’s views outmoded and no longer applicable to changed conditions and ideologies. But from what I have learned of Swami Vivekananda himself, it appears obvious that his counsel is still of vital relevance arid that, if I may be permitted to say so, the Indian people will neglect his teachings at their peril.
Since my narrative deals exclusively with the period extending from the Swami’s first arrival in America to the spring of 1895, I have included for the benefit of those readers who are unfamiliar with the full story of his life a Prologue and an Epilogue, which together give a brief resume of the years before and after those dealt with in the body of this book. To one who would make a thorough study of Swami Vivekananda’s early life in America, I recommend that in conjunction with this book he read the Swami’s early American lectures (particularly those delivered at the Parliament of Religions) in “The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda” : Chapters XXI, XXII, XXIII and part of XXV of ” The Life of Swami Vivekananda”, by His Eastern and Western Disciples (fourth edition) ; and pages 65 to 226 of the fourth edition of “The Letters of Swami Vivekananda”, and additional Idlers in Volume VITI of “The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda”. Throughout the course of this book I have referred to these works – all of which have been published by the Advaita Ashrama in Mayavati, Almora, India – as “The Complete Works”. “The Life” and “The Letters”.
In reproducing articles from American newspapers, I have given them exactly as they were in the original. Except for details of formal and obvious typographical errors, which I do not think need be perpetuated,wrong spellings of proper name and faulty punctuation and grammar have been left uncorrected. The misinformation of the American press regarding things Indian has also been allowed to stand ; for the original material gives glimpses not only of Swami Vivekananda but of the cultural climate which he encountered. In those cases, however, where journalistic errors make the material unintelligible I have given, when possible, bracketed suggestions as to what may have been intended by the reporter and, when this has not been possible, bracketed question marks to indicate the present author’s bewilderment. Although excerpts horn some of the newspaper reports have been quoted in “The Life of Swami Vivekananda” or in his “Complete Works”, the full text of every article has been included, except where otherwise indicated.
In quoting Swami Vivekananda’s newly discovered letters, poems and notes, I have nowhere taken the liberty of editing them, but have reproduced them in their entirety and have retained the original punctuations and sometimes hastily written sentences. While in some cases minor editing would not have been amiss, I believe that in at least one book his letters and other writings should be reproduced as he wrote them without omissions or changes. The reader will no doubt observe that quotations taken from “The Letters” vary at times from the published revisions. I these discrepancies, I assure him, are not due to my editing but to the fact that wherever possible I have taken quotations directly horn the transcriptions of the Swami’s original, unedited letters. Where the original has been in Bengali, I have sought and received the help of a translator, who has given me from the Bengali edition of “The Letters” a literal translation of several passages in which literalness was, I felt, of prime importance.
It should perhaps be mentioned that although this book is published in India by the Advaita Ashrama, whose policy is to follow English spellings, the American style of spelling has been used throughout, for not only is the author an American, but by far the greater pail of the quotations included in the book have been gathered from American sources. ‘The original spellings have, of course, been let stand in material taken from non-American sources.
Throughout the course of this book I have expressed my debt and my gratitude to those who have contributed their
recollections of Swami Vivekananda and who have made available to me material to which I would otherwise have had no access. I would like, however, to express here my indebtedness and gratitude to the research workers in the libraries of many of those cities which Swami Vivekananda visited during his lecture tour, who in all instances have given me their courteous and indispensable assistance. My heartfelt thanks go particularly to my friend, John A. Gault of the New York Public Library, for the many photostats he contributed at his own expense and for his time, interest and help. My thanks also due to Mr. F. Kretzschmar of the Information Service, Inc. of Detroit for the articles his bureau unearthed for me in the Detroit newspapers. I am also indebted to all those who have generously supplied the photographs for this book, and I have acknowledged this debt in the List of Illustration.
Finally, to those members of the Vedanta Society of Northern California who have helped me in various ways in the preparation of this book – such as typing, reading, correcting my manuscript and preparing the glossary – and who have given me their untailing encouragement and their indispensable advice, my undoing gratitude.
In giving these thanks and making these acknowledgments, I do so not alone on my own behalf but on that of the Vedanta Society of Northern California, to which I have given the full rights to this book, including the rights of translation. I should add, however, that although the Vedanta Society of Northern California has accepted this book, the opinions expressed within its pages are mine and do not necessarily represent or rellect those of the Society.
In conclusion I would like to say that both the Vedanta Society of Northern California and I are indebted to the Advaita Ashrama for its offer to publish the present volume.
M. L. B.