Vivekananda and Psychic Phenomena

The Master As I Saw Him

Being Pages From the Life of the Swami Vivekananda by his disciple Nivedita of Ramakrishna Vivekananda.

Sister Nivedita reading



Leadenhall St., London, 1895




INDIA is undoubtedly the land of the understanding of psychology. To Hindus, more than to any other race, it may be said that men appear as minds. Concentration of mind is to them the ideal of life. Such differences as between talent and genius, between ordinary goodness and the highest sainthood, between moral weakness and power, are by them understood as simple differences in degree of concentration. This pre-occupation of the race is partly cause, and partly effect, doubtless, of the fact that the study of psychology has been organised in India as a science, from the earliest times.

Long before the value of writing, for the notation of knowledge, was even suspected, the quiet registration of phenomena in the communal consciousness, had begun, by the interchange of ideas and observations. Millenniums before instruments and laboratories could be thought of, as having any bearing on scientific enquiry in general, the age of experiment was fully developed amongst the Indian people, with regard to this most characteristic of their sciences.

It is not surprising that in the singularly wide range of knowledge thus accumulated in India, many phenomena of the mind, which appear to the less informed West as abnormal or miraculous, should be duly noted and classified. Thus hypnotism, and many obscure forms of hyper&sthesis and hyperkinesis, – the most familiar of these being healing, though treading, clairvoyance, and clairaudience – offer no overwhelming difficulty to the student of the ancient Indian psychology, or Raja Yoga, as it is called.

We all know that the great value of scientific thought lies in enabling us to recognise and record phenomena. It matters little that a disease is rare, if only it be once noted as within the field of medical practice. It has a place thenceforth, in the human mind. It is no miracle, only because, sooner or later, it will be classified. It has a name. The conjunction of diagnosis and treatment is now a question of time only.


“His nervous system, again, had been so charged with certain ideas that even in sleep he shrank from the touch of metal, and his hand would, apparently of its own accord, restore a book or a fruit, whose return to its owner the conscious mind had failed to prompt.”

Ramakrishna Paramahamsa, living in the garden of Dakshineshwar


Something of the same sort applies to the trustworthy fraction of what are commonly referred to as “psychic phenomena.” Occurrences falling under this head, when authentic, are obviously no more supernatural than the liquefaction of air, or the extraction of radium.

Indeed the propriety of the word ‘supernatural’ is always open to dispute, inasmuch as if once a thing can be proved to occur, it is clearly within nature, and to call it supernatural becomes by that very fact, absurd.

In India the phenomena in question are regarded as cases of extension of faculty, and their explanation is sought, not in the event, but in the state of the mind witnessing it, since it is to be supposed that this will always, under given conditions, register a perception different from the accustomed

In Ramakrishna Paramahamsa, living in the garden of Dakshineshwar, his disciples had been familiar, for years, with many of those mental characteristics which are noted in the books as distinctive of the highest degree of concentration. He was so responsive that he would meet them at the door on their arrival, and begin at once to answer, without being told of them, the questions that the boys carried written in their pockets.

His perceptions were so fine that he could tell by touch the character of anyone who might already have come in contact with his food, his clothes, or his mat. It “burnt” him, he said, of an impress from which he shrank; or, on another occasion, “Look! I can eat this. The sender must have been some good soul!” His nervous system, again, had been so charged with certain ideas that even in sleep he shrank from the touch of metal, and his hand would, apparently of its own accord, restore a book or a fruit, whose return to its owner the conscious mind had failed to prompt.

No Indian psychologist would say of one of the world-seers that he had talked with angels, but only that he had known how to reach a mood in which he believed himself to talk with angels. Of this condition, the disciples of Sri Ramakrishna saw plentiful examples. Stories are still current amongst them, regarding the strangeness of the sensations with which they would listen to one side of a dialogue, or one part in a conversation, which might seem to be carried on for hours at a time; while their Master, resting quietly, evidently believed

to be holding communion with beings invisible to them.

Behind all these manifold experiences of Ramakrishna, binding them into one great life, was always the determination to serve mankind. Vivekananda spoke of him in after years as ‘writhing on the ground’ during the hours of darkness, in the agony of his prayer that he might return to earth again, even as a dog, if only he might aid a single soul. In moments less intimate and hidden than these, he would speak of the temptation of the higher realisations, to draw the soul away from conditions of service. And his disciples connected with this such odd utterances as they would sometimes hear, at the end of a deep entrancement, when their Master seemed to be like a child coaxing his Mother to let him run away from Her to play. ‘Just one more’ act of service, or ‘one more’ little enjoyment would be urged, on such an occasion, as a motive for returning to common consciousness.

That return, however, always brought with it the infinite love and insight of one who had been lost in God. When the Swami Vivekananda, on the occasion of his Harvard Address, defines this as the differentia between the unconsciousness of Samadhi, and the unconsciousness of catalepsy, we may take it that the assurance which breathes in every syllable, arose from his having constantly witnessed the transition, in his Master.

There were still other remarkable traits in Sri Ramakrishna. He had his own nervous force so entirely under control that he could remove all consciousness from his throat, for instance, during his last illness, and allow it to be operated on, as if under a local anaesthetic. His faculties of observation, again, were quite unique. The smallest detail of the physical constitution had a meaning for him, as casting light on the personality within. He would throw

the disciple who had just come to him into an hypnotic sleep, and learn from his subconscious mind, in a few minutes, all that was lodged there, concerning the far past. Each little act and word, insignificant to others, was to him like a straw, borne on the great current of character, and showing the direction of its flow. There were times, he said, when men and women seemed to him like glass, and he could look them through and through.

Above all, he could by his touch give flashes of supreme insight, which exercised a formative and compelling power over whole lives. In the matter of Samadhi this is well-known, especially in reference to women-visitors at Dakshineshwar. But beyond this, a story was told me by a simple soul, of a certain day during the last few weeks of Sri Ramakrishna’s life, when he came out into the garden at Cossipore, and placed his hand on the heads of a row of persons, one after another, saying in one case, “Aj thak!” “To-day let be!” in another, “Chaitanya houk!” “Be awakened!” and so on.

And after this, a different gift came to each one thus blessed. In one there awoke an infinite sorrow. To another, everything about him became symbolic, and suggested ideas. With a third, the benediction was realised as over-welling bliss. And one saw a great light, which never thereafter left him, but accompanied him always everywhere, so that never could he pass a temple, or a wayside shrine, without seeming to see there, seated in the midst of this effulgence, – smiling or sorrowful as he at the moment might deserve – a Form that he knew and talked of as “the Spirit that dwells in the images.”

By such stimulating of each man to his own highest and best, or by such communication of experience as one and another could bear at the time, Ramakrishna Paramahamsa

built up the rigorous integrity and strong discrimination that one sees in all who were made by his hand. “We believe nothing without testing it,” says one – Ramakrishnananda by name “we have been trained to this.”

And when I enquired from another of the disciples what particular form this training took, he answered, after deep thought, that it lay in some experience given of the Reality, from which each gained a knowledge that could never be deceived. “By our own effort,” says Vivekananda, in one of his earlier lectures, “or by the mercy of some great perfected soul, we reach the highest.”

Now the life of the guru is the disciple’s treasure in hand; and it was undoubtedly by an instantaneous analysis of all that he had seen and shared, of the extensions possible to human faculty, that the Swami was able, on his arrival in the Western sphere of psychical enquiry, to classify all knowledge as sub-conscious, conscious, and super-conscious.

The two first terms were in common enough use, in Europe and America. The third, he himself added to the psychological vocabulary, by a masterly stroke of insight, authenticated by his own personal knowledge. “Consciousness,” he said on one occasion, “is a mere film between two oceans, the sub-conscious and the superconscious.”

Again he exclaimed “I could not believe my own ears, when I heard Western people talking so much of consciousness! Consciousness? What does consciousness matter! Why, it is NOTHING, as compared with the unfathomable depths of the sub-, and the heights of the super-conscious! In this I could never be misled, for had I not seen Ramakrishna Paramahamsa gather in ten minutes, from a man’s sub-conscious mind, the whole of his past, and determine from that his future and his powers?”

The certainty of the dictum laid down in

Raja Yoga that intuition, when genuine, can never contradict reason, is also indisputably due to the same comprehensive range of experience.

The ascetic of Dakshineshwar might be capable of unusual modes of insight, but he was no victim of the vanity born thereof, to be seeking for uncommon ways of arriving at facts that were accessible enough by ordinary methods. When a strange religious came to visit the garden, professing to be able to live without food, Ramakrishna Paramahamsa attempted no clairvoyant mode of testing him, but simply set shrewd observers to watch and bring him word as to what and where he was in the habit of eating.

Nothing was to be accepted, unproven, and the Swami Vivekananda, to his dying day, had a horror of those dreams, previsions, and prophecies by which ordinary folk are so apt to try to dominate one another. These things, as was inevitable, were offered to him in abundance, but he invariably met them with defiance, leaving them to work themselves out, if they were true, in spite of him. Whether a given foretelling would eventually be verified or not, it was impossible for him, he said, to know: the one thing of which he was sure was, that if he once obeyed it, he would never again be allowed to go free.

In the case of Sri Ramakrishna, it invariably happened that visions and intuitions were directed to things of the spirit; gipsy-like prognostications were far from him; and in the opinion of his disciples, such prognostications are always indicative of a greater or less misusing of energy. “All these are side-issues,” said the Swami, “they are not true Yoga. They may have a certain usefulness, in establishing indirectly the truth of our statements. Even a little glimpse gives faith that there is something beyond gross matter. Yet those 

spend time on such things run into grave dangers.” “These are frontier questions!” he exclaimed impatiently, on another occasion, “there can never be any certainty or stability of knowledge, reached by their means. Did I not say they were ‘frontier-questions’? The boundary-line is always shifting!”

In all that might come before us, the attempt at discrimination was to be maintained. ‘I shall accept it when I have experienced it,’ was to be the reply to statements of the extraordinary. But our own experience was to be sifted thoroughly. We were not to run away with the first explanation of a phenomenon that might occur to us.

In spite of his reluctance to accept easy conclusions, however, the Swami became convinced, in the course of years, of the occasional return of persons from the dead, “I have several times in my life seen ghosts,” he said once, with great deliberateness, “and once, in the week after the death of Sri Ramakrishna, I saw a luminous ghost.”

But this did not imply the smallest respect on his part, for the bulk of the experiments known as spiritualistic seances. Of a famous convert whom he met on one such occasion, he said that it was sad to find a man of extraordinary intelligence in matters of the world, leaving all his intelligence behind him at the doors of a so-called medium.

In America he had been present at a number of seances as a witness, and he regarded the great majority of the phenomena displayed as grossly fraudulent. “Always the greatest fraud by the simplest means,” he said, summing up his observations. Another large fraction of the total, he thought, were better explained by subjective methods,* than as objectively true. If, after all these deduct-

* Thus a well-known thought-reader in Southern India claimed that an invisible female figure stood beside him, and told him what to say. “I did not like this explanation,” said the Swami, “and set myself to find another.” He came to the conclusion that the source of information was subjective.

deductions had been made, any residuum remained, it was possible that this might be genuinely what it, professed.

* Thus a well-known thought-reader in Southern India claimed that an invisible female figure stood beside him, and told him what to say. “I did not like this explanation,” said the Swami, “and set myself to find another.” He came to the conclusion that the source of information was subjective.

But even if so, knowledge of the phenomenal could never be the goal of effort. The return of wandering wills from one plane of physical tension to another could throw but little light on any true concept of immortality. Only by renunciation could this be reached. Any dwelling upon the occult led inevitably, in the Swami’s opinion, to increase of desire, to increase of egotism, and to the fall into untruth.

If the ordinary good of life was to be given up, for the sake of the soul, how much more assuredly so, these vanities of supernatural power! Even Christianity would have seemed to him a higher creed, if it had had no miracles. Buddha’s abhorrence of wonders was the eternal glory of Buddhism. At best their value could only be to give a little confidence, and that only for the first steps. “If there be powers, they shall vanish away; charity alone remaineth.” Only to the soul that is strong enough to avoid these temptations does the door stand open. In the words of Patanjali, “To him who is able to reject all the powers, comes the cloud of virtue.” He, alone attains the very highest.