Swami Vivekananda enjoyed the sea voyage back to India, relaxing from his strenuous activities in the West. But his mind was full of ideas regarding his future plan of work in his motherland.
There were on the boat, among other passengers, two Christian missionaries who, in the course of a heated discussion with the Swami, lost their tempers and savagely criticized the Hindu religion. The Swami walked to one of them, seized him by the collar, and said menacingly, ‘If you abuse my religion again, I will throw you overboard.’
‘Let me go, sir,’ the frightened missionary apologized; ‘I’ll never do it again.’
Later, in the course of a conversation with a disciple in Calcutta, he asked, ‘What would you do if someone insulted your mother?’ The disciple answered, ‘I would fall upon him, sir, and teach him a good lesson.’
‘Bravo!’ said the Swami. ‘Now, if you had the same positive feeling for your religion, your true mother, you could never see any Hindu brother converted to Christianity. Yet you see this occurring every day, and you are quite indifferent. Where is your faith? Where is your patriotism? Every day Christian missionaries abuse Hinduism to your face, and yet how many are there amongst you whose blood boils with righteous indignation and who will stand up in its defense?’
When the boat stopped at Aden, the party went ashore and visited the places of interest. The Swami saw from a distance a Hindusthani betel-leaf seller smoking his hookah, or hubble-bubble. He had not enjoyed this Indian way of smoking for the past three years. Going up to him, the Swami said, ‘Brother, do give me your pipe.’ Soon he was puffing at it with great joy and talking to him as to an intimate friend.
Mr. Sevier later on said to Swamiji teasingly: ‘Now we see! It was this pipe that made you run away from us so abruptly!’ Speaking of this incident, the Swami’s companions said later: ‘The shopkeeper could not have resisted him; for he had such an endearing way about him, when asking for anything, that he was simply irresistible. We shall never forget that ingenuous look on his face when he said to the shopkeeper, with childlike sweetness, “Brother, do give me your pipe.”‘
In the early morning of January 15, 1897, the coast of Ceylon with its majestic coco palms and gold-coloured beach was seen at a distance. The Swami’s heart leapt with joy; and his disciples caught his excitement as the boat approached the beautiful harbour of Colombo. But no one in the party had the slightest idea of what they were to witness while disembarking.
Since the day of his success at the Parliament of Religions in Chicago, which had filled with joy and pride the hearts of his countrymen, especially of his disciples and brother monks at the Baranagore Math, Swami Vivekananda had been inspiring his faithful followers to lay down their lives for the uplift of the masses of India, and in particular to help the hungry and illiterate. In his heart of hearts he felt that India would not be able to resist his appeal. Many months before, while discussing with some of his disciples in Detroit the great difficulties that he had encountered in presenting Hinduism to bigoted Christians in America, he had said: ‘But India shall listen to me. I will shake India to her foundations. I will send an electric thrill through her veins. Wait! You will see how India receives me. It is India, my own India, that knows truly how to appreciate what I have given so freely here, and with my life’s blood. India will receive me in triumph.’
When the news of Swami Vivekananda’s departure from Europe reached India, the hearts of the people were stirred. The spiritual ambassador of their ancient land was coming back after fulfilling his mission. They must give a regal welcome to this great crusader. In big towns committees were formed for his reception. His brother disciples and friends were impatient. Swami Shivananda came ahead of time to Madras and Swami Niranjanananda to Colombo; so also many of his disciples from Bengal and the Northern Provinces came to Madras to await his arrival. The newspapers published articles eulogizing his personality and work.
A gaily decorated steam launch carried the Swami and his party from the ship to the harbour. When the monk with his yellow robe and luminous eyes came ashore, a mighty shout arose from the human throng crowding the quays. Thousands flung themselves on the ground to touch his feet. A deputation of the notables of Ceylon welcomed him, and he was taken in a huge procession through many triumphal arches. Flags were unfurled, religious hymns chanted; an Indian band played. Rosewater and the sacred water of the Ganga were sprinkled before him, and flowers were strewn in his path. Incense was burnt before the houses as he passed. Fruit and other offerings were brought by hundreds of visitors.
Swami Vivekananda accepted all these honours without losing his poise. He was not the man to flee from triumph any more than from battle. He regarded the tributes paid to him, a penniless beggar, as tributes paid to the spiritual ideal of India. In the course of his reply to the address of welcome given in Colombo, he said, ‘The spirituality of the Hindus is revealed by the princely reception which they have given to a beggar sannyasin.’ He pointed out that though he was not a military general, not a prince nor a wealthy man, yet men great in the transitory possessions of the world and much respected by society had nevertheless come to honour him, a homeless monk. ‘This,’ he exclaimed, ‘is one of the highest expressions of spirituality.’ He disclaimed any personal glory in the welcome he received, insisting that it was but the recognition of a principle.
Swami Vivekananda’s progress from Colombo to Madras and the welcomes he received at Kandy, Anuradhapuram, Jaffna, Pamban, Rameswaram, Ramnad, Paramakkudi, Madurai, Trichinopoly, and Kumbakonam demonstrated how deeply he had endeared himself to the men and women of India. At Anuradhapuram a band of fanatical Buddhists tried to break up the meeting, but did not succeed. At Rameswaram the Swami exhorted the people to ‘worship Siva in the poor, the diseased, and the weak’.
He received a touching welcome there from the Raja of Ramnad, his disciple, who had encouraged him to go to America and had helped him materially for that purpose. At Ramnad the horses were unhitched from the carriage bearing the Swami, and the people themselves, the Raja among them, drew it. At Rameswaram the Raja erected, in the Swami’s honour, a victory column forty feet high with a suitable inscription. He also gave a liberal donation to the Madras famine-relief fund to commemorate the home-coming of the Swami.
At a small railroad station near Madras, hundreds of people gathered for a glimpse of Vivekananda. The stationmaster did not want to delay the train since no stop was scheduled. But the crowd of admirers flung themselves on the track, and the train had to be halted. The Swami was visibly moved and blessed the multitude.
The enthusiasm of the people reached its peak in Madras, where extensive preparations had been made for the Swami’s reception. It was Madras that had first recognized the greatness of Vivekananda and equipped him for the journey to Chicago. At that time, when he had first come there, he had been, in effect, only an obscure individual. He had spent some two months in an unknown bungalow at San Thome, holding conversations on Hinduism. Yet even then a few educated young men of keen foresight had predicted that there was something in the man, a ‘power’ that would lift him above all others and enable him to be a leader of men. These youths, who had been ridiculed as ‘misguided enthusiasts’ and ‘dreamy revivalists,’ now, four years later, had the supreme satisfaction of seeing ‘our Swami,’ as they loved to call him, return to them a famous personage in both Europe and America.
The streets and thoroughfares of Madras were profusely decorated; seventeen triumphal arches were erected. The Swami’s name was on everybody’s lips. Thousands jammed the railway station, and as the train steamed in, he was received with thundering shouts of applause. An elaborate procession was formed, and he was taken to ‘Castle Kernan,’ the palatial home of Billigiri Iyengar, where arrangements had been made for his stay in the city.
On the third day after his arrival Swami Vivekananda was honoured in a public meeting on behalf of the people of Madras. As Victoria Hall, chosen for the purpose, was too small to hold the large crowd, the people cried for an open-air gathering. The Swami came out and addressed them from the top of a coach; it was, as it were, Sri Krishna, standing in the chariot, exhorting Arjuna to give up his unmanliness and measure up to his Aryan heritage. In a brief speech he told the people how India, through her love of God, had expanded the limited love of the family into love of country and of humanity. He urged them to maintain their enthusiasm and to give him all the help he required to do great things for India.
During his short stay in Madras, Swami Vivekananda gave four public lectures, his subjects being, ‘My Plan of Campaign,’ ‘The Sages of India,’ ‘Vedanta in Its Application to Indian Life,’ and ‘The Future of India.’ In these lectures he reminded the Indians of both their greatness and their weakness, and urged them to be proud of their past and hopeful for their future.
While speaking on ‘My Plan of Campaign,’ the Swami exposed the meanness of some of the Theosophists, who had tried their utmost to injure his work in America but later claimed that they had paved the way for his success in the New World. He told the audience that when, in desperation, he had cabled to India for money, the Theosophists had come to know about it and one of them had written to a member of the Society in India: ‘Now the devil is going to die. God bless us all!’ But it must be said that there were many among the Theosophists, especially in India, who were his genuine well-wishers.
Swami Vivekananda had hardly a moment’s respite during his nine days in Madras. When asked by a disciple how he found the strength for such incessant activity, he answered, ‘Spiritual work never tires one in India.’ But he would lose patience if asked about matters that had no bearing on practical life. One day a pandit asked him to state clearly whether he was a dualist or a non-dualist. The Swami said: ‘As long as I have this body I am a dualist, but not otherwise. This incarnation of mine is to help put an end to useless and mischievous quarrels, which only distract the mind and make men weary of life, and even turn them into sceptics and atheists.’
Meanwhile heart-warming letters had been arriving from America informing the Swami of the progress of the Vedanta work in the New World under the leadership of Swami Saradananda, and also in appreciation of his own achievements. One letter was signed by Lewis G. Janes, President of the Brooklyn Ethical Association; C. C. Everett, Dean of the Harvard Divinity School; William James and Josiah Royce, both professors of philosophy at Harvard University; Mrs. Sara C. Bull of Boston, and others. It said: ‘We believe that such expositions as have been given by yourself mere speculative interest and utility — that they are of great ethical value in cementing the ties of friendship and brotherhood between distant peoples, and in helping us to realize that solidarity of human relationship and interests which has been affirmed by all the great religions of the world. We earnestly hope that your work in India may be blessed in further promoting this noble end, and that you may return to us again with assurances of fraternal regard from our distant brothers of the great Aryan family, and the ripe wisdom that comes from reflection and added experience and further contact with the life and thought of your people.’
Another letter from Detroit, signed by forty-two of his friends, said in part: ‘We Western Aryans have been so long separated from our Eastern brothers that we had almost forgotten our identity of origin, until you came and with your beautiful presence and matchless eloquence rekindled within our hearts the knowledge that we of America and you of India are one.’
Swami Vivekananda, after his strenuous work in South India, needed rest. On the advice of friends, he decided to travel to Calcutta by steamer. Monday, February 15, was the date of his sailing. Several devotees boarded the steamer to see him off, and one of them, Professor Sundararama Iyer, asked the Swami if his mission had achieved lasting good in America and Europe. The Swami said: ‘Not much. I hope that here and there I have sown a seed which in time may grow and benefit some at least.’
Swami Vivekananda’s lectures delivered during his progress from Colombo to Madras were inspiring and enthusiastic. He yearned to awaken the masses of India from the slumber of ages. He had seen the dynamic life of the West; he now felt more deeply the personality of India, which only needed his fiery exhortation to assert itself once more among the nations of the world. Again one is reminded of Krishna’s admonition to Arjuna on the battlefield of Kurukshetra: ‘In this crisis, O Arjuna, whence comes such lowness of spirit, unbecoming to an Aryan, dishonourable, and an obstacle to the attaining of heaven? Do not yield to unmanliness, O Arjuna. It does not become you. Shake off this base faint-heartedness and arise, O scorcher of enemies!’
In his famous lecture ‘My Plan of Campaign,’ delivered in Madras, he called upon the people to assert their soul-force:
My India, arise! Where is your vital force? In your Immortal Soul. Each nation, like each individual, has one theme in this life, which is its centre, the principal note round which every other note comes to form the harmony. If any nation attempts to throw off its national vitality, the direction which has become its own through the transmission of centuries, that nation dies….In one nation political power is its vitality, as in England. Artistic life, in another, and so on. In India religious life forms the centre, the keynote of the whole music of the national life. And therefore, if you succeed in the attempt to throw off your religion and take up either politics or society, the result will be that you will become extinct. Social reform and politics have to be preached through the vitality of your religion…. Every man has to make his own choice; so has every nation. We made our choice ages ago. And it is the faith in an Immortal Soul. I challenge anyone to give it up. How can you change your nature?
He asked the Indians to stop complaining. Let them make use of the power that lay in their hands. That power was so great that if they only realized it and were worthy of it, they could revolutionize the world. India was the Ganga of spirituality. The material conquests of the Anglo-Saxon races, far from being able to dam its current, had helped it. England’s power had united the nations of the world; she had opened paths across the seas so that the waves of the spirit of India might spread until they had bathed the ends of the earth.
What was this new faith, this word that the world was awaiting?
The other great idea that the world wants from us today — more perhaps the lower classes than the higher, more the uneducated than the educated, more the weak than the strong — is that eternal, grand idea of the spiritual oneness of the whole universe, the only Infinite Reality, that exists in you and in me and in all, in the self, in the soul. The infinite oneness of the soul — that you and I are not only brothers, but are really one — is the eternal sanction of all morality. Europe wants it today just as much as our downtrodden races do, and this great principle is even now unconsciously forming the basis of all the latest social and political aspirations that are coming up in England, in Germany, in France and in America. (Extracts from the lecture ‘The Mission of the Vedanta.’)
What Swami Vivekananda preached was the essence of the non-dualistic Vedanta, the deepest and the unique expression of India’s spirit.
I heard once the complaint made that I was preaching too much of Advaita, absolute non-dualism, and too little of dualism. Ay, I know what grandeur, what oceans of love, what infinite, ecstatic blessings and joy there are in dualistic religion. I know it all. But this is not the time for us to weep, even in joy; we have had weeping enough; no more is this the time for us to become soft. This softness has been with us till we have become like masses of cotton. What our country now wants is muscles of iron and nerves of steel, gigantic will, which nothing can resist, which will accomplish their purpose in any fashion, even if it means going down to the bottom of the ocean and meeting death face to face. That is what we want, and that can only be created, established, and strengthened by understanding and realizing the ideal of Advaita, that ideal of the oneness of all. Faith, faith, faith in ourselves! … If you have faith in the three hundred and thirty millions of your mythological gods, and in all the gods which foreigners have introduced into your midst, and still have no faith in yourselves, there is no salvation for you. Have faith in yourselves and stand upon that faith. Why is it that we three hundred and thirty millions of people have been ruled for the last thousand years by any and every handful of foreigners? Because they had faith in themselves and we had not. I read in the newspapers how, when one of our poor fellows is murdered or ill-treated by an Englishman, howls go up all over the country; I read and I weep, and the next moment comes to my mind the question of who is responsible for it all. Not the English; it is we who are responsible for all our degradation. Our aristocratic ancestors went on treading the common masses of our country underfoot till they became helpless, till under this torment the poor, poor people nearly forgot that they were human beings. They have been compelled to be merely hewers of wood and drawers of water for centuries, so that they are made to believe that they are born as slaves, born as hewers of wood and drawers of water. (Extracts from ‘The Mission of the Vedanta.’)
He exhorted the leaders to cultivate the indispensable virtue of feeling for the people:
‘Feel, therefore, my would-be reformers, my would-be patriots! Do you feel? Do you feel that millions and millions of the descendants of gods and of sages have become next-door neighbours to brutes? Do you feel that millions are starving today and millions have been starving for ages? Do you feel that ignorance has come over the land as a dark cloud? Does it make you restless? Does it make you sleepless? Has it made you almost mad? Are you seized with that one idea of the misery of ruin, and have you forgotten all about your name, your fame, your wives, your children, your property, even your own bodies? If so, that is the first step to becoming a patriot. For centuries people have been taught theories of degradation. They have been told that they are nothing. The masses have been told all over the world that they are not human beings. They have been so frightened for centuries that they have nearly become animals. Never were they allowed to hear of the Atman. Let them hear of the Atman — that even the lowest of the low have the Atman within, who never dies and never is born — Him whom the sword cannot pierce, nor the fire burn, nor the air dry, immortal, without beginning or end, the all-pure, omnipotent, and omnipresent Atman. (‘Extracts from ‘My Plan of Campaign.’)
‘Ay, let every man and woman and child, without respect of caste or birth, weakness or strength, hear and learn that behind the strong and the weak, behind the high and the low, behind everyone, there is that Infinite Soul, assuring all the infinite possibility and the infinite capacity to become great and good. Let us proclaim to every soul: Arise, arise, awake! Awake from this hypnotism of weakness. None is really weak; the soul is infinite, omnipotent, and omniscient. Stand up, assert yourself, proclaim the God within you, do not deny Him!’ (Extracts from ‘The Mission of the Vedanta.’)
‘It is a man-making religion that we want. It is a man-making education all round that we want. It is man-making theories that we want. And here is the test of truth: Anything that makes you weak physically, intellectually, and spiritually, reject as poison; there is no life in it, it cannot be true. Truth is strengthening. Truth is purity, truth is all knowledge. Truth must be strengthening, must be enlightening, must be invigorating. Give up these weakening mysticisms and be strong. The greatest truths are the simplest things in the world, simple as your own existence.
‘Therefore my plan is to start institutions in India to train our young men as preachers of the truths of our scriptures in India and outside India. Men, men — these are wanted : everything else will be ready; but strong, vigorous, believing young men, sincere to the backbone, are wanted. A hundred such and the world becomes revolutionized. The will is stronger than anything else. Everything must go down before the will, for that comes from God: a pure and strong will is omnipotent.’ (Extracts from ‘My Plan of Campaign.’)
‘If the brahmin has more aptitude for learning on the grounds of heredity than the pariah, spend no more money on the brahmin’s education, but spend all on the pariah. Give to the weak, for there all the gift is needed. If the brahmin is born clever, he can educate himself without help. This is justice and reason as I understand it.’ (From ‘The Mission of the Vedanta.’)
‘For the next fifty years let all other vain Gods disappear from our minds. This is the only God that is awake: our own race — everywhere His hands, everywhere His feet, everywhere His ears, He covers everything. All other Gods are sleeping. Why should we vainly go after them, when we can worship the God that we see all around us, the Virat? The first of all worships is the worship of the Virat, of those all around us. These are all our Gods — men and animals; and the first Gods we have to worship are our own countrymen.’ (From ‘The Future of India.’)
These stirring words did not fall on deaf ears. The spirit of India vibrated to the Swami’s call. India became aware of the power of the soul — of God sleeping in man and of His illimitable possibilities. Ramakrishna and Vivekananda were the first awakeners of India’s national consciousness; they were India’s first nationalist leaders in the true sense of the term. Ramakrishna was the power and Vivekananda the voice. The movement for India’s liberation started from Dakshineswar. The subsequent political leaders of the country, consciously or unconsciously, received their inspiration from Vivekananda’s message, and some of them openly acknowledged it. The Bengal revolutionaries were ardent readers of Vivekananda’s books, some of which were frowned upon by the British Government. The uplift of the masses, the chief plank in Gandhi’s platforms was Vivekananda’s legacy.
Yet the militant Vivekananda was not a politician. ‘Let no political significance ever be attached falsely to my writings or sayings. What nonsense!’ — he had said as early as September 1894. A year later he wrote: ‘I will have nothing to do with political nonsense. I do not believe in politics. God and Truth are the only politics in the world. Everything else is trash.’
Swami Vivekananda longed for India’s political freedom; but he thought of a free India in relation to her service to humanity. A free India would take her rightful place in the assembly of nations and make a vital contribution towards bringing peace and goodwill to mankind. His message was both national and international.
While Swami Vivekananda was enjoying the restful boat trip from Madras to Calcutta, a reception committee was busy preparing for him a fitting welcome in the metropolis of India, the city of his birth. The steamer docked at Budge Budge, and the Swami and his party arrived by train in Calcutta on February 19, 1897. The reception was magnificent, with an enthusiastic crowd at the railroad station, triumphal arches, the unharnessed carriage drawn by students, and a huge procession with music and religious songs. A princely residence on the bank of the Ganga was placed at the Swami’s disposal.
On February 28, 1897, he was given a public reception. Raja Benoy Krishna Deb presided, and five thousand people jammed the meeting. As usual, the Swami asked the people to go back to the perennial philosophy of the Upanishads. He also paid a touching tribute to Ramakrishna, ‘my teacher, my master, my hero, my ideal, my God in life.’ ‘If there has been anything achieved by me,’ he said with deep feeling, ‘by thoughts or words or deeds, if from my lips has ever fallen one word that has ever helped anyone in the world, I lay no claim to it; it was his. But if there have been curses falling from my lips, if there has been hatred coming out of me, it is all mine, and not his. All that has been weak has been mine; all that has been life-giving, strengthening, pure, and holy has been his inspiration, his words, and he himself. Yes, my friends, the world has yet to know that man.’ A few days after, he gave another public lecture on ‘Vedanta in All Its Phases.’
Shortly after the Swami’s arrival in Calcutta the anniversary of Sri Ramakrishna’s birth was celebrated at Dakshineswar. Accompanied by his brother disciples, the Swami joined the festival. He walked barefoot in the holy grounds. Deep emotions were stirred up as he visited the temples, the Master’s room, the Panchavati, and other spots associated with the memory of Sri Ramakrishna. The place was a sea of human heads.
The Swami said to Girish, a beloved disciple of the Master, ‘Well, what a difference between those days and these!’
‘I know,’ replied Girish, ‘but I have the desire to see more.’
For a little while the Swami spent his days at the palatial house on the river; nights, however, he spent with his spiritual brothers at the Alambazar monastery. He had hardly any rest. People streamed in at all times to pay him their respects or to hear his exposition of Vedanta, or just to see him. There were also people who came to argue with him on scriptural matters and to test his knowledge.
But the Swami’s heart was with the educated, unmarried youths whom he could train for his future work. He longed to infuse into their hearts some of his own burning enthusiasm. He wanted them to become the preachers of his ‘man-making religion.’ The Swami deplored the physical weakness of Indian youths, denounced their early marriage, and reproached them for their lack of faith in themselves and in their national ideals.
One day a young man complained to the Swami that he could not make progress in spiritual life. He had worshipped images, following the advice of one teacher, and had tried to make his mind void according to the instruction of another, but all had been fruitless.
‘Sir,’ the young man said, ‘I sit still in meditation, shutting the door of my room, and keep my eyes closed as long as I can, but I do not find peace of mind. Can you show me the way?’
‘My boy,’ replied the Swami in a voice full of loving sympathy, ‘if you take my word, you will have first of all to open the door of your room and look around, instead of closing your eyes. There are hundreds of poor and helpless people in your neighbourhood; you have to serve them to the best of your ability. You will have to nurse and procure food and medicine for the sick. You will have to feed those who have nothing to eat. You will have to teach the ignorant. My advice to you is that if you want peace of mind, you shall have to serve others to the best of your ability.’
Another day a well-known college professor, who was a disciple of Sri Ramakrishna, said to the Swami: ‘You are talking of service, charity, and doing good to the world; these, after all, belong to the domain of maya. Vedanta says that the goal of man is the attainment of mukti, liberation, through breaking the chain of maya. What is the use of preaching about things which keep one’s mind on mundane matters?’
The Swami replied: ‘Is not the idea of mukti in the domain of maya? Does not Vedanta teach that the Atman is ever free? Why should It, then, strive for mukti?’
He said on another occasion: ‘When I used to roam about all over India, practising spiritual disciplines. I passed day after day in caves absorbed in meditation. Many a time I decided to starve myself to death because I could not attain mukti. Now I have no desire for mukti. I do not care for it as long as a single individual in the universe remains in bondage.’
Swami Vivekananda often used to say that different forms of spiritual discipline were especially efficacious for different ages. At one period it was the practice of austerities, at another period, the cultivation of divine love; and at a third period, it was philosophical discrimination accompanied by renunciation. But in modern times, he emphasized, unselfish service of others, karma-yoga, would quickly bring spiritual results. Therefore he advocated the discipline of selfless action. He particularly advocated this discipline for the Indians because they were under the spell of tamas, inertia. The Swami realized that only after cultivating rajas would they be able to acquire sattva and attain liberations. As regards himself, the Swami had already known mukti through the realization of oneness with Brahman in nirvikalpa samadhi. But by the will of God he had brought himself down to consciousness of the phenomenal world, and lived like a bodhisattva, devoting himself to the welfare of humanity.
Swami Vivekananda found it most difficult to convert some of his own brother disciples to his new conception of religion and its discipline and method. These brother disciples were individualists, eager for their personal salvation. They wanted to practise austerities and penances, enjoy peaceful meditation, and lead a quiet life of detachment from the world. To them God was first, and next the world. At least that was the way they understood Sri Ramakrishna’s teachings. These young monks thought that for one who had taken the monastic vows the world was maya; therefore all activities, including the charitable and philanthropic, ultimately entangled one in worldly life.
But Vivekananda’s thought flowed through a different channel. Sri Ramakrishna had once admonished him to commune with God with eyes open, that is to say, through the service of the poor, the sick, the hungry, and the ignorant. During his days of wandering the Swami had seen with his own eyes the suffering of the people and had felt the voiceless appeal of India for his help. In America and Europe he had witnessed the material prosperity of the people, the dynamic social life, and the general progress made through science, technology, and organized action. Time and again he remembered the words of Ramakrishna: ‘Religion is not for empty stomachs.’
To his brother disciples, therefore, he pointed out that the idea of personal liberation was unworthy of those who called themselves disciples of Ramakrishna, an Incarnation of God. The very fact that they had received the grace of a Saviour should have convinced them of their sure salvation. Their duty, he emphasized, was to serve others as the visible manifestations of God. He said that he wanted to create a new band of monks, who would take not only the traditional vow of personal salvation, but also a new vow of service to humanity.
The brother disciples, who respected the superior spirituality of Vivekananda and bore him great love as the one especially chosen by the Master to carry on his work, obeyed him without always agreeing with him wholeheartedly. Thus at his behest Swami Ramakrishnananda — who had been the keeper of Sri Ramakrishna’s shrine for twelve long years after the passing away of the Master, regarding his worship as the supreme spiritual discipline, and had not been absent even for a single day from the monasteries at Baranagore and Alambazar — left for Madras to found a centre for the propagation of Vedanta in South India. Swami Akhandananda went to Murshidabad to carry on relief work among the famine-stricken people there. Swamis Abhedananda and Saradananda had already gone to America.
As for himself, Swami Vivekananda was constantly talking to people, instructing them in the Upanishads, and enjoining them to cultivate the inner strength that comes from the knowledge of God residing in all human hearts. The strain of work and the heat of the plains soon told upon his health. At the advice of physicians he went for a short change to Darjeeling, in the Himalayas, and felt somewhat refreshed. Returning to Calcutta he again devoted himself to the work of teaching.
Several young men, inspired by the Swami’s fiery words, joined the Order. Four others, who had been practising disciplines in the monastery under the guidance of the older Swamis while Vivekananda was abroad, were now eager to receive the monastic initiation formally from their great leader. His brother disciples expressed hesitation about one of them, because of some incidents of his past life.
This aroused Swami Vivekananda’s emotion. ‘What is this?’ he said. ‘If we shrink from sinners, who else will save them? Besides, the very fact that someone has taken refuge at the monastery, in his desire to lead a better life, shows that his intentions are good, and we must help him. Suppose a man is bad and perverted; if you cannot change his character, why then have you put on the ochre robe of a monk? Why have you assumed the role of teachers?’ All four received their monastic initiation.
On the day previous to this sacred ceremony the Swami spoke to them only about the glories of renunciation and service. He said: ‘Remember, for the salvation of his soul and for the good and happiness of many, a sannyasin is born in the world. To sacrifice his own life for others, to alleviate the misery of millions rending the air with their cries, to wipe away tears from the eyes of widows, to console the hearts of bereaved mothers, to provide the ignorant and depressed masses with ways and means for the struggle for existence and make them stand on their own feet, to broadcast the teachings of the scriptures to one and all, without distinction, for their spiritual and material welfare, to rouse the sleeping lion of Brahman in the hearts of all beings by the knowledge of Vedanta — a sannyasin is born in the world.’ Turning to his brother disciples the Swami said: ‘Remember, it is for the consummation of this purpose in life that we have taken birth, and we shall lay down our lives for it. Arise and awake, arouse and awaken others, fulfil your mission in life, and you will reach the highest goal.’ Then addressing the aspirants for the monastic life he said: ‘You must renounce everything. You must not seek comfort or pleasure for yourself. You must look upon gold and objects of lust as poison, name and fame as the vilest filth, worldly glory as a terrible hell, pride of birth or of social position as “sinful as drinking spirituous liquor.” In order to be teachers of your fellow men, and for the good of the world, you will have to attain freedom through the knowledge of the Self.’
From the following incident one can learn the depths of the Swami’s compassion. Many inmates of the Math thought that he was not very discriminating in the choice of his disciples. Almost anyone could obtain spiritual initiation from him after a little supplication, and some of them were found later to indulge in wicked actions. One of his own monastic disciples, Swami Nirmalananda, spoke to him about his lack of proper judgement and his inability to understand human nature. The Swami’s face became red with emotion. He exclaimed: ‘What did you say? You think that I do not understand human nature? About these unfortunate people I know not only all they have done in their present lives, but also what they did in their previous ones. I am fully aware of what they will do in the future. Then why do I show kindness to them? These hapless people have knocked at many doors for peace of mind and a word of encouragement, but everywhere have been repulsed. If I turn them down they will have no place to go.’
Another incident indicating the tender and compassionate heart of Swami Vivekananda may be mentioned here. One day he was engaged in teaching a disciple the Vedas, with the abstruse commentary of Sayanacharya, when Girish Chandra Ghosh, the great playwright of Bengal and an intimate disciple of Sri Ramakrishna, arrived. By way of teasing him, the Swami said, addressing him by his familiar name: ‘Well, G. C., you have spent your whole life with Krishna and Vishnu.1 You are quite innocent of the Vedas and other scriptures.’
Girish Chandra admitted his ignorance of the scriptures and said, ‘Hail Sri Ramakrishna, the very embodiment of the Vedas!’
An adept in the knowledge of human nature, Girish was well aware that Swami Vivekananda, in spite of his preaching the austere philosophy of Vedanta, had a heart that was tender in the extreme. He wanted to reveal that side of the Swami’s nature before the disciple, and began to paint, in his usual poetic language, a heart-rending picture of the afflictions of the Indian people — the starvation of the masses, the humiliation of Hindu women, the ill-health and general suffering of the people everywhere. Suddenly, addressing the Swami, he said, ‘Now please tell me, do your Vedas teach us how to remedy this state of affairs?’
As the Swami listened to his friend’s words, he could hardly suppress his emotion. At last it broke all bounds and he burst into tears.
Drawing the attention of the Swami’s disciple to the great leader, Girish Chandra said: ‘Perhaps you have always admired your teacher’s intellect. Now you see his great heart.’
On May 1, 1897, Swami Vivekananda called a meeting of the monastic and lay devotees of Sri Ramakrishna at the house of the Master’s intimate disciple Balaram Bose, for the purpose of establishing his work on an organized basis. He told them that by contrasting Hindu society with American society, he was convinced that lack of an organizing spirit was one of the great shortcomings of the Hindu character. Much of the intelligence and energy of the Hindus was being expended without producing any fruitful result. He also recalled how Buddhism had spread both in India and abroad through Buddhist organizations. Therefore he asked the co-operation of the monastic and householder disciples of Sri Ramakrishna in order to organize the educational, philanthropic, and religious activities which he had already inaugurated, but which had hitherto been carried out in an unsystematic way. Further, the Swami declared that in a country like India, in its then current state of development, it would not be wise to form an organization on a democratic basis, where each member had an equal voice and decisions were made according to the vote of the majority. Democratic principles could be followed later, when, with the spread of education, people would learn to sacrifice individual interests and personal prejudices for the public weal. Therefore, said the Swami, the organization for the time being should be under the leadership of a ‘dictator,’ whose authority everybody must obey. In the fullness of time, it would come to be guided by the opinion and consent of others. Moreover, he himself was only acting in the capacity of a servant of the common Master, as were they all.2
Swami Vivekananda proposed to the members present that the Association should ‘bear the name of him in whose name we have become sannyasins, taking whom as your ideal you are leading the life of householders, and whose holy name, influence, and teachings have, within twelve years of his passing away, spread in such an unthought-of way both in the East and in the West.’ All the members enthusiastically approved of the Swami’s proposal, and the Ramakrishna Mission Association came into existence.
The aim of the Association was to spread the truths that Ramakrishna, for the good of humanity, had preached and taught through the example of his own life, and to help others to put them into practice for their physical, mental, and spiritual advancement.
The duty of the Association was to direct, in the right spirit, the activities of the movement inaugurated by Sri Ramakrishna for the establishment of fellowship among the followers of different religions, knowing them all to be so many forms of one undying Eternal Religion.
Its methods of action were to be: (a) to train men so as to make them competent to teach such knowledge and sciences as are conducive to the material and spiritual welfare of the masses; (b) to promote and encourage arts and industries; (c) to introduce and spread among the people in general Vedantic and other ideas as elucidated in the life of Sri Ramakrishna.
The Ramakrishna Mission Association was to have two departments of action: Indian and foreign. The former, through retreats and monasteries established in different parts of India, would train such monks and householders as might be willing to devote their lives to the teaching of others. The latter would send trained members of the Order to countries outside India to start centres there for the preaching of Vedanta in order to bring about a closer relationship and better understanding between India and foreign countries.
The aims and ideals of the Ramakrishna Mission Association, being purely spiritual and humanitarian, were to have no connexion with politics.
Swami Vivekananda must have felt a great inner satisfaction after the establishment of the Association. His vision of employing religion, through head, heart, and hands, for the welfare of man was realized. He found no essential conflict among science, religion, art, and industry. All could be used for the worship of God. God could be served as well through His diverse manifestations as through the contemplation of His non-dual aspect. Further, as the great heart of Ramakrishna had embraced all of mankind with its love, so also the Ramakrishna Mission was pledged to promote brotherhood among different faiths, since their harmony constituted the Eternal Religion.
Swami Vivekananda, the General President, made Brahmananda and Yogananda the President and the Vice-president of the Calcutta centre. Weekly meetings were organized at Balaram’s house to discuss the Upanishads, the Bhagavad Gita, the Vedanta scriptures, and religious subjects in general.3
Even now Swami Vivekananda could not completely convince some of his brother disciples about his new conception of religion, namely, the worship of God through the service of man. They had heard Sri Ramakrishna speak time and again against preaching, excessive study of the scriptures, and charitable activities, and exhort aspirants to intensify their love of God through prayer and meditation in solitude. Therefore they regarded Vivekananda’s activities in the West as out of harmony with the Master’s teachings. One of them said bluntly to the Swami, ‘You did not preach our Master in America; you only preached yourself.’ The Swami retorted with equal bluntness, ‘Let people understand me first; then they will understand Sri Ramakrishna.’
On one occasion Swami Vivekananda felt that some of these brother disciples wanted to create a narrow sect in the name of Ramakrishna and turn the Ramakrishna Math into a cult of the Temple, where the religious activities would centre around devotional music, worship, and prayer alone. His words burst upon them like a bomb-shell. He asked them how they knew that his ideas were not in keeping with those of Sri Ramakrishna. ‘Do you want,’ he said, ‘to shut Sri Ramakrishna, the embodiment of infinite ideas, within your own limits? I shall break these limits and scatter his ideas broadcast all over the world. He never enjoined me to introduce his worship and the like.’
Had it not been demonstrated to Vivekananda time and again that Sri Ramakrishna was behind him in all his actions? He knew that through the Master’s grace alone he had come out triumphant from all ordeals, whether in the wilderness of India or in the busy streets of Chicago.
‘Sri Ramakrishna,’ the Swami continued, ‘is far greater than the disciples understand him to be. He is the embodiment of infinite spiritual ideas capable of development in infinite ways….One glance of his gracious eyes can create a hundred thousand Vivekanandas at this instant. If he chooses now, instead, to work through me, making me his instrument, I can only bow to his will.’
Vivekananda took great care lest sentimentalism and narrowness in one form or another should creep in, for he detested these from the bottom of his heart.
But things came to a climax one day at Balaram’s house in Calcutta, when Swami Yogananda, a brother disciple whom Sri Ramakrishna had pointed out as belonging to his ‘inner circle’ of devotees, said that the Master had emphasized bhakti alone for spiritual seekers and that philanthropic activities, organizations, homes of service for the public good, and patriotic work were the Swami’s own peculiar ideas, the result of his Western education and travel in Europe and America.
The Swami at first retorted to his brother with a sort of rough humour. He said: ‘What do you know? You are an ignorant man….What do you understand of religion? You are only good at praying with folded hands: “O Lord! how beautiful is Your nose! How sweet are Your eyes!” and all such nonsense….And you think your salvation is secured and Sri Ramakrishna will come at the final hour and take you by the hand to the highest heaven! Study, public preaching, and doing humanitarian works are, according to you, maya, because he said to someone, “Seek and find God first; doing good to the world is a presumption!” As if God is such an easy thing to be achieved! As if He is such a fool as to make Himself a plaything in the hands of an imbecile!
‘You think you have understood Sri Ramakrishna better than myself! You think jnana is dry knowledge to be attained by a desert path, killing out the tenderest faculties of the heart! Your bhakti is sentimental nonsense which makes one impotent. You want to preach Sri Ramakrishna as you have understood him, which is mighty little! Hands off! Who cares for your Ramakrishna? Who cares for your bhakti and mukti? Who cares what your scriptures say? I will go into a thousand hells cheerfully if I can rouse my countrymen, immersed in tamas, to stand on their own feet and be men inspired with the spirit of karma-yoga. I am not a follower of Ramakrishna or anyone, but of him only who serves and helps others without caring for his own bhakti and mukti!’
The Swami’s voice was choked with emotion, his body shook, and his eyes flashed fire. Quickly he went to the next room. A few moments later some of his brother disciples entered the room and found him absorbed in meditation, tears flowing from his half-closed eyes. After nearly an hour the Swami got up, washed his face, and joined his spiritual brothers in the drawing-room. His features still showed traces of the violent storm through which he had just passed; but he had recovered his calmness. He said to them softly:
‘When a man attains bhakti, his heart and nerves become so soft and delicate that he cannot bear even the touch of a flower!…I cannot think or talk of Sri Ramakrishna long without being overwhelmed. So I am always trying to bind myself with the iron chains of jnana, for still my work for my motherland is unfinished and my message to the world not fully delivered. So as soon as I find that those feelings of bhakti are trying to come up and sweep me off my feet, I give a hard knock to them and make myself firm and adamant by bringing up austere jnana. Oh, I have work to do! I am a slave of Ramakrishna, who left his work to be done by me and will not give me rest till I have finished it. And oh, how shall I speak of him? Oh, his love for me!’
He was again about to enter into an ecstatic mood, when Swami Yogananda and the others changed the conversation, took him on the roof for a stroll, and tried to divert his mind by small talk. They felt that Vivekananda’s inmost soul had been aroused, and they remembered the Master’s saying that the day Naren knew who he was, he would not live in this body. So from that day the brother disciples did not again criticize the Swami’s method, knowing fully well that the Master alone was working through him.
From this incident one sees how Vivekananda, in his inmost heart, relished bhakti, the love of God. But in his public utterances he urged the Indians to keep their emotionalism under control; he emphasized the study of Vedanta, because he saw in it a sovereign tonic to revivify them. He further prescribed for his countrymen both manual and spiritual work, scientific research, and service to men. Vivekananda’s mission was to infuse energy and faith into a nation of ‘dyspeptics’ held under the spell of their own sentimentality. He wished in all fields of activity to awaken that austere elevation of spirit which arouses heroism.
As with his Master, the natural tendency of Vivekananda’s mind was to be absorbed in contemplation of the Absolute. Again, like Sri Ramakrishna, he had to bring down his mind forcibly to the consciousness of the world in order to render service to men. Thus he kept a balance between the burning love of the Absolute and the irresistible appeal of suffering humanity. And what makes Swami Vivekananda the patriot saint of modern India and at the same time endears him so much to the West is that at the times when he had to make a choice between the two, it was always the appeal of suffering humanity that won the day. He cheerfully sacrificed the bliss of samadhi to the amelioration of the suffering of men. The Swami’s spirit acted like a contagion upon his brother disciples. One of them, Akhandananda, as stated before, fed and nursed the sufferers from famine at Murshidabad, in Bengal; another, Trigunatita, in 1897 opened a famine-relief centre at Dinajpur. Other centres were established at Deoghar, Dakshineswar and Calcutta.
Swami Vivekananda was overjoyed to see the happy beginning of his work in India. To Mary Hale he wrote on July 9, 1897:
Only one idea was burning in my brain — to start the machine for elevating the Indian masses, and that I have succeeded in doing to a certain extent.
It would have made your heart glad to see how my boys are working in the midst of famine and disease and misery — nursing by the mat-bed of the cholera-stricken pariah and feeding the starving chandala, and the Lord sends help to me, to them, to all….He is with me, the Beloved, and He was when I was in America, in England, when I was roaming about unknown from place to place in India. What do I care about what they say?4 The babies — they do not know any better. What? I, who have realized the Spirit, and the vanity of all earthly nonsense, to be swerved from my path by babies’ prattle? Do I look like that?…I feel my task is done — at most three or four years more of life are left….I have lost all wish for my salvation. I never wanted earthly enjoyments. I must see my machine in strong working order, and then, knowing for sure that I have put in a lever for the good of humanity, in India at least which no power can drive back, I will sleep without caring what will be next.
And may I be born again and again, and suffer thousands of miseries, so that I may worship the only God that exists, the only God I believe in, the sum total of all souls. And above all, my God the wicked, my God the miserable, my God the poor of all races, of all species, is the especial object of my worship.
- An allusion to the dramas written by Girish Chandra Ghosh, in which Krishna, Vishnu and other characters of Hindu mythology play prominent parts.
- A touching incident that happened sometimes afterwards and expresses the complete self-effacement of the Swami, may be narrated here. He handed over to Swami Brahmananda, the newly appointed President of the Ramakrishna Math of Belur, all the money he had brought from America for the purpose of carrying on his Indian activities, with the request that ‘only the kids should be eaten and the mother goat be spared,’ meaning that the monastery should spend only the interest and not touch the capital. Thus he himself was left without any personal income. A few minutes later he said that he would like to go to Calcutta and requested one of his disciples to ask Swami Brahmananda for a few pennies for the ferry-boat across the Ganga. Swami Brahmananda felt embarrassed and told him that the whole money belonged to him and that he must not ask for it in that way. But Swami Vivekananda insisted on being counted as any other member of the monastery.
- In 1899 Swami Vivekananda established the Belur Math, the present Headquarters of the Ramakrishna Order, and turned it over to a Board of Trustees drawn from the monastic members of the Ramakrishna Order; the main purpose of the Math was to train monks in spiritual practice and to serve humanity in all possible ways. It was, however, restricted in its public activities. With the establishment of the Belur Math, the Ramakrishna Mission Association ceased to function as an independent organization. Soon the need was felt to conduct extensive philanthropic, charitable, educational, and missionary work. Therefore a separate organization, called the Ramakrishna Mission, was set up to carry on these activities, and a legal status was given to it in 1909. Its membership was open to monks and laymen. But the management of the Ramakrishna Mission was vested in a Governing Body, which, for the time being, consisted of the Trustees of the Belur Math. Both the Ramakrishna Math at Belur, also called the Belur Math, and the Ramakrishna Mission now have branches all over India. The members of the Math devote themselves mainly to the spiritual practices of study, prayer, worship, and meditation, whereas the members of the Mission carry on public activities in various fields.
- Referring to some scurrilous remarks about Swami Vivekananda by certain American missionaries.