The Master As I Saw Him
Being Pages From the Life of the Swami Vivekananda by his disciple Nivedita of Ramakrishna Vivekananda.
IN LONDON, 1895
It is strange to remember, and yet it was surely my good fortune, that though I heard the teachings of my Master, the Swami Vivekananda, on both the occasions of his visits to England, in 1895 and 1896, I yet knew little or nothing of him in private life, until I came to India, in the early days of 1898.
For as the fruit of this want of experience I have it, that at each step of his self-revelation as a personality, my Master stands out in my memory against his proper background, of Indian forest, city, and highway, – an Eastern teacher in an Eastern world.
Even in far a-way London indeed, the first time I saw him, the occasion must have stirred in his mind, as it does in mine, recalling it now, a host of associations connected with his own sun-steeped land.
The time was a cold Sunday afternoon in November, and the place, it is true, a West-end drawing room. But he was seated, facing a half-circle of listeners, with the fire on the hearth behind him, and as he answered question after question, breaking now and then into the chanting of some Sanskrit text in illustration of his reply, the scene must have appeared to him, while twilight passed into darkness, only as a curious variant upon the Indian garden, or on the group of hearers gathered at sundown round the Sadhu who sits beside the well, or under the tree outside the village-bounds.
Never again in England did I see the Swami, as a teacher, in such simple fashion. Later, he was always lecturing, or the questions he answered were put with formality by members of larger audiences. Only this first time we were but fifteen or sixteen guests, intimate friends, many of us, and he sat amongst us, in his crimson robe and girdle, as one bringing us news from a far land, with a curious habit of saying now and again “Shiva! Shiva!” and wearing that look of mingled gentleness and loftiness, that one sees on the faces of those who live much in meditation, that look, perhaps, that Raphael has painted for us, on the brow of the Sistine Child.
That afternoon is now ten years ago, and fragments only of the talk come Backto me. But never to be forgotten are the Sanskrit verses that he chanted for us, in those wonderful
Eastern tones, at once so reminiscent of, and yet so different from, the Gregorian music of our own churches.
He was quite willing to answer a personal question, and readily explained, in reply to some enquiry that he was in the West, because he believed that the time had come, when nations were to exchange their ideals, as they were already exchanging the commodities of the market.
From this point onwards, the talk was easy. He was elucidating the idea of the Eastern Pantheism, picturing the various sense-impressions as but so many different modes of the manifestation of One1, and he quoted from the Gita and then translated into English: “All these are threaded upon Me, as pearls upon a string.”
He told us that love was recognised in Hinduism as in Christianity, as the highest religious emotion.
And he told us, – a thing that struck me very much, leading me during the following winter to quite new lines of observation, – that both the mind and the body were regarded by Hindus as moved and dominated by a third, called the Self.
He was describing the difference between Buddhism and Hinduism, and I remember the quiet words, “the Buddhists accepted the report of the senses.”
In this respect then, Buddhism must have been in strong contrast with modern agnosticism, whose fundamental suspicion as to the subjective illusion of the senses, – and therefore of all inference – would surely bring it more into line with Hinduism.
I remember that he objected to the word “faith,” insisting on “realisation” instead; and speaking of sects, he quoted an Indian proverb, “It is well to be born in a church, but it is terrible to die there.”
I think that the doctrine of Re-incarnation was probably touched upon in this talk. I imagine that he spoke of Karma, Bhakti, Jnana, as the three paths of the soul. I know he dwelt for a while on the infinite power of man. And he declared the one message of all religions to lie in the call to Renunciation.
There was a word to the effect that priests and temples were not associated in India with the highest kind of religion: and the statement that the desire to reach Heaven was in that country regarded, by the most religious people, “as a little vulgar.”
1 Here Sister Nivedita is referring to the One God, an infinite ocean of consciousness, who, according to Vedanta philosophy, is manifesting Himself as this variety of Creation.
He must have made some statement of the ideal of the freedom of the soul, which brought it into apparent conflict with our Western conception of the service of humanity, as the goal of the individual. For I remember very clearly that I heard him use that word “society” for the first time that afternoon, in the sense that I have never been quite sure of having fully understood. He had, as I suppose, stated the ideal, and he hastened to anticipate our opposition. “You will say,” he said, “that this does not benefit society. But before this objection can be admitted you will first have to prove that the maintenance of society is an object in itself.”
At the time, I understood him to mean ‘humanity’ by ‘society,’ and to be preaching the ultimate futility of the world, and therefore of the work done to aid it. Was this his meaning? In that case, how is one to reconcile it with the fact that the service of humanity was always his whole hope? Or was he merely stating an idea, and standing aside to give it its full value? Or was his word ‘society,’ again, only a faulty translation of the curious Eastern word Samaj, coloured, as that is, with theocratic associations, and meaning something which includes amongst other things, our idea of the church?
He touched on the question of his own position, as a wandering teacher, and expressed the Indian diffidence with regard to religious organisation, or, as someone expresses it, ‘with regard to a faith that ends in a church.’ “We believe,” he said, “that organisation always breeds new evils.”
He prophesied that certain religious developments then much in vogue in the West would speedily die, owing to love of money. And he declared that “Man proceeds from truth to truth, and not from error to truth.”
This was indeed the master-thought which he continually approached from different points of view, the equal truth of all religions, and the impossibility for us, of criticising any of the Divine Incarnations, since all were equally forth-shinings of the One1. And here he quoted that greatest of all verses of the Gita: “Whenever religion decays and irreligion prevails, then I manifest Myself. For the protection of the good, for the destruction of the evil, for the firm establishment of the truth, I AM BORN AGAIN AND AGAIN.”
We were not very orthodox, or open to belief, we who had come to meet the Hindu Yogi, as he was called in London at that time. The white-haired lady, with the historic name, who sat on the Swami’s left, and took the lead in questioning him, with such exquisiteness of courtesy, was, perhaps, the least unconventional of the group in matters of belief, and she had been a friend and disciple of Frederick Denison Maurice. Our hostess and one or two
1. The One Supreme God, who resides in all.
others were interested in those modern movements which have made of an extended psychology the centre of a faith. But most of us had, I incline to think, been singled out for the afternoon’s hospitality, on the very score of our unwillingness to believe, for the difficulty of convincing us of the credibility of religious propaganda in general.
Only this habit, born of the constant need of protecting the judgement against ill-considered enthusiasm, can, as I now think, furnish any excuse for the coldness and pride with which we all gave our private verdicts on the speaker at the end of our visit. “It was not new,” was our accusation, as one by one we spoke with our host and hostess before leaving. All these things had been said before.
For my own part, however, as I went about the tasks of that week, it dawned on me slowly that it was not only ungenerous, it was also unjust, to dismiss in such fashion the message of a new mind and a strange culture. It occurred to me that though each separate dictum might find its echo or its fellow amongst things already heard or already thought, yet it had never before fallen to my lot to meet with a thinker who in one short hour had been able to express all that I had hitherto regarded as highest and best. I therefore took the only two opportunities that remained to me, of hearing the Swami lecture, while he was still in London.
The feeling that great music wakes in us, grows and deepens with its repetition. And similarly, as I read over the notes of those two lectures now, they seem to me much more wonderful than they did then.
For there was a quality of blindness in the attitude I presented to my Master, that I can never sufficiently regret. When he said “The universe is like a cobweb and minds are the spiders; for mind is one as well as many”: he was simply talking beyond my comprehension. I noted what he said, was interested in it, but could pass no judgment upon it, much less accept it. And this statement describes more or less accurately the whole of my relation to his system of teaching, even in the following year, when I had listened to a season’s lectures; even, perhaps, on the day when I landed in India.
There were many points in the Swami’s teachings of which one could see the truth at once. The doctrine that while no religion was true in the way commonly claimed, yet all were equally true in a very real way, was one that commanded the immediate assent of some of us. When he said that God, really Impersonal, seen through the mists of sense became Personal, one was awed and touched by the beauty of the thought. When he said that the spirit behind an act was more powerful than the act itself, or when he commended vegetarianism, it was possible to experiment. But his system as a whole, I, for one, viewed with suspicion, as forming only another of those theologies which if a man should begin by accepting, he would surely end by transcending and rejecting. And one shrinks from the pain and humiliation of spirit that such experiences involve.
It is difficult at this point to be sufficiently explicit. The time came, before the Swami left England, when I addressed him as “Master.” I had recognised the heroic fibre of the man, and desired to make myself the servant of his love for his own people. But it was his character to which I had thus done obeisance. As a religious teacher, I saw that although he had a system of thought to offer, nothing in that system would claim him for a moment, if he found that truth led elsewhere. And to the extent that this recognition implies, I became his disciple. For the rest, I studied his teaching sufficiently to become convinced of its coherence, but never, till I had had experiences that authenticated them, did I inwardly cast in my lot with the final justification of the things he came to say. Nor did I at that time, though deeply attracted by his personality, dream of the immense distance which I was afterwards to see, as between his development and that of any other thinker or man of genius whom I could name.
Referring to this scepticism of mine, which was well known at the time to the rest of the class, a more fortunate disciple, long afterwards, was teasing me, in the Swami’s presence, and claiming that she had been able to accept every statement she had ever heard him make. The Swami paid little or no attention to the conversation at the time, but afterwards he took a quiet moment to say ”Let none regret that they were difficult to convince! I fought my Master for six long years, with the result that I know every inch of the way! Every inch of the way!”
One or two impressions, however, stand out from those first discourses. Christianity had once meant to me the realisation of God as the Father. But I had long mourned over my own loss of faith in this symbolism, and had desired to study its value as an idea, apart from its objective truth or untruth. For I suspected that such a conception would have its own effect on the character and perhaps on the civilisation of those who held it. This question, however,
I had been unable to follow up, for want of material of comparison. And here was one who told us of no less than five systems of worship, founded on similar personifications of the divine idea. He preached a religion which began with the classification of religious ideas!
I was very much struck, further, by the strangeness, as well as the dignity, of some of the Indian conceptions which I now heard of for the first time. The very newness of these metaphors, and of the turn of thought, made them an acquisition. There was the tale, for instance, of the saint who ran after a thief, with the vessels he had dropped in his terror at being discovered, and cast them all at his feet, crying, “O Lord, I knew not that Thou wast there! Take them, they are Thine! Pardon me Thy child!” And again, of the same saint, we heard how he described the bite of a cobra, when at nightfall he recovered by saying “A messenger came to me from the Beloved.”
There was the inference, again, that the Swami himself had drawn from the mirage in the desert. Fifteen days he had seen it, and taken it always to be water. But now that he had been thirsty and found it to be unreal, he might see it again for fifteen days, but always henceforth he would know it to be false. The experience to which such achievements had been possible, the philosophy that could draw some parallel between this journey in the desert and life, were such as it seemed an education to understand.
But there was a third element in the Swami’s teaching, whose unexpectedness occasioned me some surprise. It was easy to see that he was no mere lecturer, like some other propounders of advanced ideas whom I had heard even from the pulpit. It was by no means his intention to set forth dainty dishes of poetry and intellectuality for the enjoyment of the rich and idle classes. He was, to his own thinking at least, as clearly an apostle, making an appeal to men, as any poor evangelical preacher, or Salvation Army officer, calling on the world to enter into the kingdom of God.
And yet he took his stand on what was noblest and best in us. I was not thinking of his announcement that sin was only an evil dream. I knew that such a theory might merely be part of a cumbrous system of theology, and no more a reality to its elucidator than the doctrine that when a man steals our coat we should give to him our cloak also, was to ourselves. The thing that I found astonishing was a certain illustration urged by him. His audience was composed for the most part of fashionable young mothers, and he spoke of their terror and their flight, if a tiger should suddenly appear before them in the street. “But suppose”, he said, with a sudden change of tone, “suppose there were a baby in the path of the tiger! Where would your place be then? At his mouth – any one of you – I am sure of it.”
These, then, were the things I remembered and pondered over, concerning the Swami, when he had left England, that winter, for America, – first, the breadth of his religious culture; second, the great intellectual newness and interest of the thought he had brought to us; and thirdly, the fact that his call was sounded in the name of that which was strongest and finest, and was not in any way dependent on the meaner elements in man.