Questions and Answers: Shri Surendra Nath Sen – Jan 23, 2014

Written by VHouse Admin. Posted in Articles, Life and Works, Vivekananda

Sunday, The 23rd January, 1898.

It was evening and the occasion of the weekly meeting of the Ramakrishna Mission, at the house of Balaram Babu of Baghbazar. Swami Turiyananda, Swami Yogananda, Swami Premananda, and others had come from the Math. Swamiji was seated in the verandah to the east, which was now full of people, as were the northern and the southern sections of the verandah. But such used to be the case every day when Swamiji stayed in Calcutta.

Many of the people who came to the meeting had heard that Swamiji could sing well, and so were desirous of hearing him. Knowing this, Master Mahâshaya (M.) whispered to a few gentlemen near him to request Swamiji to sing; but he saw through their intention and playfully asked, “Master Mahashaya, what are you talking about among yourselves in whispers? Do speak out.” At the request of Master Mahashaya, Swamiji now began in his charming voice the song—”Keep with loving care the darling Mother Shyâmâ in thy heart. . . .” It seemed as if a Vinâ was playing. At its close, he said to Master Mahashaya, “Well, are you now satisfied? But no more singing! Otherwise, being in the swing of it, I shall be carried away by its intoxication. Moreover, my voice is now spoilt be frequent lecturing in the West. My voice trembles a great deal. . . .”

Swamiji then asked one of his Brahmacharin disciples to speak on the real nature of Mukti. So, the Brahmacharin stood up and spoke at some length. A few others followed him. Swamiji then invited discussion on the subject of the discourse, and called upon one of his householder disciples to lead it; but as the latter tried to advocate the Advaita and Jnâna and assign a lower place to dualism and Bhakti, he met with a protest from one of the audience. As each of the two opponents tried to establish his own viewpoint, a lively word-fight ensued. Swamiji watched them for a while but, seeing that they were getting excited, silenced them with the following words:

Why do you get excited in argument and spoil everything? Listen! Shri Ramakrishna used to say that pure knowledge and pure Bhakti are one and the same. According to the doctrine of Bhakti, God is held to be “All-Love”. One cannot even say, “I love Him”, for the reason that He is All-Love. There is no love outside of Himself; the love that is in the heart with which you love Him is even He Himself. In a similar way, whatever attractions or inclinations one feels drawn by, are all He Himself. The thief steals, the harlot sells her body to prostitution, the mother loves her child—in each of these too is He! One world system attracts another—there also is He. Everywhere is He.

According to the doctrine of Jnana also, He is realised by one everywhere. Here lies the reconciliation of Jnana and Bhakti. When one is immersed in the highest ecstasy of divine vision (Bhâva), or is in the state of Samâdhi, then alone the idea of duality ceases, and the distinction between the devotee and his God vanishes. In the scriptures on Bhakti, five different paths of relationship are mentioned, by any of which one can attain to God; but another one can very well be added to them, viz. the path of meditation on the non-separateness, or oneness with God. Thus the Bhakta can call the Advaitins Bhaktas as well, but of the non-differentiating type. As long as one is within the region of Mâya, so long the idea of duality will no doubt remain. Space-time-causation, or name-and-form, is what is called Maya. When one goes beyond this Maya, then only the Oneness is realised, and then man is neither a dualist nor an Advaitist—to him all is One.

All this difference that you notice between a Bhakta and a Jnani is in the preparatory stage—one sees God outside, and the other sees Him within. But there is another point: Shri Ramakrishna used to say that there is another stage of Bhakti which is called the Supreme Devotion (Parâbhakti) i.e. to love Him after becoming established in the consciousness of Advaita and after having attained Mukti. It may seem paradoxical, and the question may be raised here why such a one who has already attained Mukti should be desirous of retaining the spirit of Bhakti? The answer is: The Mukta or the Free is beyond all law; no law applies in his case, and hence no question can be asked regarding him. Even becoming Mukta, some, out of their own free will, retain Bhakti to taste of its sweetness.

Q. God may be in the love of the mother for her child; but, sir, this idea is really perplexing that God is even in thieves and the harlots in the form of their natural inclinations to sin! It follows then that God is as responsible for the sin as for all the virtue in this world.
Swamiji: That consciousness comes in a stage of highest realization, when one sees that whatever is of the nature of love or attraction is God. But one has to reach that state to see and realise that idea for oneself in actual life.

Q. But still one has to admit that God is also in the sin!
Swamiji: You see, there are, in reality, no such different things as good and evil. They are mere conventional terms. The same thing we call bad, and again another time we call good, according to the way we make use of it. Take for example this lamplight; because of its burning, we are able to see and do various works of utility; this is one mode of using the light. Again, if you put your fingers in it, they will be burnt; that is another mode of using the same light. So we should know that a thing becomes good or bad according to the way we use it. Similarly with virtue and vice. Broadly speaking, the proper use of any of the faculties of our mind and body is termed virtue, and its improper application or waste is called vice.

Thus questions after questions were put and answered. Someone remarked, “The theory that God is even there, where one heavenly body attracts another, may or may not be true as a fact, but there is no denying the exquisite poetry the idea conveys.”

Swamiji: No, my dear sir, that is not poetry. One can see for oneself its truth when one attains knowledge.
From what Swamiji further said on this point, I understood him to mean that matter and spirit, though to all appearances they seem to be two distinct things, are really two different forms of one substance; and similarly, all the different forces that are known to us, whether in the material or in the internal world, are but varying forms of the manifestation of one Force. We call a thing matter, where that spirit force is manifested less; and living, where it shows itself more; but there is nothing which is absolutely matter at all times and in all conditions. The same Force which presents itself in the material world as attraction or gravitation is felt in its finer and subtler state as love and the like in the higher spiritual stages of realisation.

Q. Why should there be even this difference relating to individual use? Why should there be at all this tendency in man to make bad or improper use of any of his faculties?
Swamiji: That tendency comes as a result of one’s own past actions (Karma); everything one has is of his own doing. Hence it follows that it is solely in the hands of every individual to control his tendencies and to guide them properly.

Q. Even if everything is the result of our Karma, still it must have had a beginning, and why should our tendencies have been good or bad at the beginning?
Swamiji: How do you know that there is a beginning? The Srishti (creation) is without beginning—this is the doctrine of the Vedas. So long as there is God, there is creation as well.

Q. Well, sir, why is this Maya here, and whence has it come?
Swamiji: It is a mistake to ask “why” with respect to God; we can only do so regarding one who has wants or imperfections. How can there be an, “why” concerning Him who has no wants and who is the One Whole? No such question as “Whence has Maya come?” can be asked. Time-space-causation is what is called Maya. You, I, and everyone else are within this Maya; and you are asking about what is beyond Maya! How can you do so while living within Maya?

Again, many questions followed. The conversation turned on the philosophies of Mill, Hamilton, Herbert Spencer, etc., and Swamiji dwelt on them to the satisfaction of all. Everyone wondered at the vastness of his Western philosophical scholarship and the promptness of his replies.
The meeting dispersed after a short conversation on miscellaneous subjects.

Questions and Answers: Shri Surendra Nath Sen – Jan 22, 1898

Written by VHouse Admin. Posted in Articles, Life and Works

Saturday, the 22nd January, 1898.

Early in the morning I came to Swamiji who was then staying in the house of Balaram Babu at 57 Ramkanta Bose Street, Calcutta. The room was packed full with listeners. Swamiji was saying, “We want Shraddhâ, we want faith in our own selves. Strength is life, weakness is death. ‘We are the Âtman, deathless and free; pure, pure by nature. Can we ever commit any sin? Impossible!’—such a faith is needed. Such a faith makes men of us, makes gods of us. It is by losing this idea of Shraddha that the country has gone to ruin.”

Question: How did we come to lose this Shraddha?
Swamiji: We have had a negative education all along from our boyhood. We have only learnt that we are nobodies. Seldom are we given to understand that great men were ever born in our country. Nothing positive has been taught to us. We do not even know how to use our hands and feet! We master all the facts and figures concerning the ancestors of the English, but we are sadly unmindful about our own. We have learnt only weakness. Being a conquered race, we have brought ourselves to believe that we are weak and have no independence in anything. So, how can it be but that the Shraddha is lost? The idea of true Shraddha must be brought back once more to us, the faith in our own selves must be reawakened, and, then only, all the problems which face our country will gradually be solved by ourselves.

Q. How can that ever be? How will Shraddha alone remedy the innumerable evils with which our society is beset? Besides, there are so many crying evils in the country, to remove which the Indian National Congress and other patriotic associations are carrying on a strenuous agitation and petitioning the British government. How better can their wants be made known? What has Shraddha to do with the matter?
Swamiji: Tell me, whose wants are those—yours or the ruler’s? If yours, will the ruler supply them for you, or will you have to do that for yourselves?

Q. But it is the ruler’s duty to see to the wants of the subject people. Whom should we look up to for everything, if not to the king?
Swamiji: Never are the wants of a beggar fulfilled. Suppose the government give you all you need, where are the men who are able to keep up the things demanded? So make men first. Men we want, and how can men be made unless Shraddha is there?

Q. But such is not the view Of the majority, sir.
Swamiji: What you call majority is mainly composed of fools and men of common intellect. Men who have brains to think for themselves are few, everywhere. These few men with brains are the real leaders in everything and in every department of work; the majority are guided by them as with a string, and that is good, for everything goes all right when they follow in the footsteps of these leaders. Those are only fools who think themselves too high to bend their heads to anyone, and they bring on their own ruin by acting on their own judgment. You talk of social reform? But what do you do? All that you mean by your social reform is either widow remarriage, or female emancipation, or something of that sort. Do you not? And these again are directed within the confines of a few of the castes only. Such a scheme of reform may do good to a few no doubt, but of what avail is that to the whole nation? Is that reform or only a form of selfishness—somehow to cleanse your own room and keep it tidy and let others go from bad to worse!

Q. Then, you mean to say that there is no need of social reform at all?
Swamiji: Who says so? Of course there is need of it. Most of what you talk of as social reform does not touch the poor masses; they have already those things—the widow remarriage, female emancipation, etc.—which you cry for. For this reason they will not think of those things as reforms at all. What I mean to say is that want of Shraddha has brought in all the evils among us, and is bringing in more and more. My method of treatment is to take out by the roots the very causes of the disease and not to keep them merely suppressed. Reforms we should have in many ways; who will be so foolish as to deny it? There is, for example, a good reason for intermarriage in India, in the absence of which the race is becoming physically weaker day by day.
Since it was a day of a solar eclipse, the gentleman who was asking these questions saluted Swamiji and left saying “I must go now for a bath in the Ganga. I shall, however, come another day.”

Questions and Answers: Guru, Avatara, Yoga, Japa, Seva

Written by VHouse Admin. Posted in Articles, Life and Works, Vivekananda

Q.—How can Vedanta be realised?

A.—By “hearing, reflection, and meditation”. Hearing must take place from a Sad-guru. Even if one is not a regular disciple, but is a fit aspirant and hears the Sad-guru’s words, he is liberated.
Q.—Who is a Sad-guru?

A.—A Sad-guru is one on whom the spiritual power has descended by Guru-paramparâ, or an unbroken chain of discipleship.

To play the role of a spiritual teacher is a very difficult thing. One has to take on oneself the sins of others. There is every chance of a fall in less advanced men. If merely physical pain ensues, then he should consider himself fortunate.
Q.—Cannot the spiritual teacher make the aspirant fit?

A.—An Avatâra can. Not an ordinary Guru.
Q.—Is there no easy way to liberation?

A.—”There is no royal road to Geometry”—except for those who have been fortunate enough to come in contact with an Avatara. Paramahamsa Deva used to say, “One who is having his last birth shall somehow or other see me.”
Q.—Is not Yoga an easy path to that?

A.—(Jokingly) You have said well, I see!—Yoga an easy path! If your mind be not pure and you try to follow Yoga, you will perhaps attain some supernatural power, but that will be a hindrance. Therefore purity of mind is the first thing necessary.
Q.—How can this be attained?

A.—By good work. Good work is of two kinds, positive and negative. “Do not steal”—that is a negative mandate, and “Do good to others”—is a positive one.
Q.—Should not doing good to others be performed in a higher stage, for if performed in a lower stage, it may bind one to the world?

A.—It should be performed in the first stage. One who has any desire at first gets deluded and becomes bound, but not others. Gradually it will become very natural.
Q.—Sir, last night you said, “In you is everything.” Now, if I want to be like Vishnu, shall I have to meditate on the form also, or only on the idea?

A.—According to capacity one may follow either way.
Q.—What is the means of realisation?

A.—The Guru is the means of realisation. “There is no knowledge without a teacher.”
Q.—Some say that there is no necessity of practicing meditation in a worship-room. How far is it true?

A.—Those who have already realised the Lord’s presence may not require it, but for others it is necessary. One, however, should go beyond the form and meditate on the impersonal aspect of God, for no form can grant liberation. You may get worldly prosperity from the sight of the form. One who ministers to his mother succeeds in this world; one who worships his father goes to heaven; but the worshipper of a Sâdhu (holy man) gets knowledge and devotion.
Q.—What is the meaning of “क्षणमिह सज्जनसंगतिरेका”—”Even a moment’s association with the holy ones serves to take one beyond this relative existence”?

A.—A fit person coming in contact with a true Sadhu attains to liberation. True Sadhus are very rare, but their influence is such that a great writer has said, “Hypocrisy is the tribute which vice pays to virtue.” But Avataras are Kapâlamochanas, that is, they can alter the doom of people. They can stir the whole world. The least dangerous and best form of worship is worshipping man. One who has got the idea of Brahman in a man has realised it in the whole universe. Monasticism and the householder’s life are both good, according to different circumstances. Knowledge is the only thing necessary.
Q.—Where should one meditate—inside the body or outside it? Should the mind be withdrawn inside or held outside?

A.—We should try to meditate inside. As for the mind being here or there, it will take a long time before we reach the mental plane. Now our struggle is with the body. When one acquires a perfect steadiness in posture, then and then alone one begins to struggle with the mind. Âsana (posture) being conquered, one’s limbs remain motionless, and one can sit as long as one pleases.
Q.—Sometimes one gets tired of Japa (repetition of the Mantra). Should one continue it or read some good book instead?

A. —One gets tired of Japa for two reasons. Sometimes one’s brain is fatigued, sometimes it is the result of idleness. If the former, then one should give up Japa for the time being, for persistence in it at the time results in seeing hallucinations, or in lunacy etc. But if the latter, the mind should be forced to continue Japa.
Q.—Sometimes sitting at Japa one gets joy at first, but then one seems to be disinclined to continue the Japa owing to that joy. Should it be continued then?

A.—Yes, that joy is a hindrance to spiritual practice, its name being Rasâsvâdana (tasting of the sweetness). One must rise above that.
Q.—Is it good to practice Japa for a long time, though the mind may be wandering?

A.—Yes. As some people break a wild horse by always keeping his seat on his back.
Q.—You have written in your Bhakti-Yoga that if a weak-bodied man tries to practice Yoga, a tremendous reaction comes. Then what to do?

A.—What fear if you die in the attempt to realise the Self! Man is not afraid of dying for the sake of learning and many other things, and why should you fear to die for religion?
Q.—Can Jiva-sevâ (service to beings) alone give Mukti ?

A.—Jiva-seva can give Mukti not directly but indirectly, through the purification of the mind. But if you wish to do a thing properly, you must, for the time being, think that that is all-sufficient. The danger in any sect is want of zeal. There must be constancy (Nishthâ), or there will be no growth. At present it has become necessary to lay stress on Karma.
Q.—What should be our motive in work—compassion, or any other motive?

A.—Doing good to others out of compassion is good, but the Seva (service) of all beings in the spirit of the Lord is better.
Q.—What is the efficacy of prayer?

A.—By prayer one’s subtle powers are easily roused, and if consciously done, all desires may be fulfilled by it; but done unconsciously, one perhaps in ten is fulfilled. Such prayer, however, is selfish and should therefore be discarded.
Q.—How to recognise God when He has assumed a human form?

A.—One who can alter the doom of people is the Lord. No Sadhu, however advanced, can claim this unique position. I do not see anyone who realises Ramakrishna as God. We sometimes feel it hazily, that is all. To realise Him as God and yet be attached to the world is inconsistent.

Questions and Answers: At The Twentieth Century Club of Boston (U.S.A)

Written by VHouse Admin. Posted in Articles, Life and Works, Vivekananda

Q.—Did Vedanta exert any influence over Mohammedanism?

A.—This Vedantic spirit of religious liberality has very much affected Mohammedanism. Mohammedanism in India is quite a different thing from that in any other country. It is only when Mohammedans come from other countries and preach to their co-religionists in India about living with men who are not of their faith that a Mohammedan mob is aroused and fights.
Q.—Does Vedanta recognise caste?

A.—The caste system is opposed to the religion of the Vedanta. Caste is a social custom, and all our great preachers have tried to break it down. From Buddhism downwards, every sect has preached against caste, and every time it has only riveted the chains. Caste is simply the outgrowth of the political institutions of India; it is a hereditary trade guild. Trade competition with Europe has broken caste more than any teaching.
Q.—What is the peculiarity of the Vedas?

A.—One peculiarity of the Vedas is that they are the only scriptures that again and again declare that you must go beyond them. The Vedas say that they were written just for the child mind; and when you have grown, you must go beyond them.
Q.—Do you hold the individual soul to be eternally real?

A.—The individual soul consists of a man’s thoughts, and they are changing every moment. Therefore, it cannot be eternally real. It is real only in the phenomenal. The individual consists of memory and thought, how can that be real?
Q.—Why did Buddhism as a religion decline in India?

A.—Buddhism did not really decline in India; it was only a gigantic social movement. Before Buddha great numbers of animals were killed for sacrifice and other reasons, and people drank wine and ate meat in large quantities. Since Buddha’s teaching drunkenness has almost disappeared, and the killing of animals has almost gone.

A Christian Looks at the Life of Vivekananda

Written by VHouse Admin. Posted in Articles

Source from An article by Dr. S. Sunder Das which appeared in Prabuddha Bharata – February 2005

I am sure many of you will be familiar with the account of the first miracle that Jesus performed at the wedding in the village called Cana in Galilee. Jesus was a guest at this wedding. The wine gave out, to the discomfiture of the master of ceremonies. Mary, the mother of Jesus, somehow felt her son could help. When she asked him to do something to produce wine, he got the servants to fill the troughs with water. The water immediately turned into wine. The guests asked the master of the feast as to why he had kept the good wine till the end. It has been said that when Robert Browning was a little boy at school, the teacher had set the class a composition entitled ‘The Miracle at Cana’. While the rest of his classmates were busy writing furiously, little Robert just sat dreaming. Just before the composition was due to be handed in, he wrote just one sentence: ‘The water saw its Lord and blushed.’ Needless to say, he got the highest marks for his effort. If I were asked to sum up in one sentence the essence of Swami Vivekananda’s work, this is what I would say: ‘He brought the awareness of the divinity of man to the common people all over the world.’

The crucifixion of Jesus at the instigation of the chief priest of the Jewish people had enormous repercussions. Nature itself rebelled against the inhuman crime: there was pitch darkness for three hours. When the spirit of Jesus left his body many momentous things happened. There was a severe earthquake and the graves opened, and people who had been dead for a long time awakened and went into the city. The most significant thing that happened was that the veil of the temple was rent in twain from top to bottom. Many Christians even to this day do not understand the significance of the torn veil. From the time Moses liberated the children of Israel from the clutches of the Pharaoh of Egypt, no one could approach God except through the intercession of the priests. The veil represented the partition between the common people and God. The advent of Jesus changed all that. Anyone, poor or rich, sinner or righteous, could approach God. It has been so with the Hindus too. For a very, very long time, the priestly class held the right to interpret to the common people the prolific rituals inherent in Hindu worship. For one thing they were the only ones who knew Sanskrit, the language of the sacred Hindu literature. They were the educated people of the time and only they could inform the people as to what rituals were required to appease the deity. Not only was there a princely living for the priests, they also wielded enormous power and influence over the lives of innumerable people.

     It could be said with conviction that the life of Swami Vivekananda was devoted to the illiterate poor people of India who were downtrodden by the application of the caste system. In that way he also sought to bring the common people to an appreciation of how every human being had the capability to reach the heights of spiritual awareness. Vedanta philosophy holds that divinity resides within each and every human being and the aim of a successful life is to acquire not only a knowledge of this fact but also to feel this conviction. The veil that Vivekananda rent was the bringing to the awareness of the poor people that they needed no priest to intercede for them and that they could approach God directly without any human intervention.

 Why was Swami Vivekananda chosen to take the message of Vedanta to the West? We have to look at the concepts of extroversion and introversion. The extrovert is outward looking and has the capacity to interact actively with the world of people; the introvert, on the other hand, is inward looking and can be said to live in a subjective world. Some important research findings on introversion are:

  • Introverts have higher levels of cortical arousal and better ability to learn conditioned responses, and they seem to be better learners using formal, direct teaching methods.
  • They seek stimulus avoidance, are cautious and tend to over-socialize.
    Introverts may be seen to show stimulus aversion in the sense that they already have a high cortical arousal, any further stimulation being perceived as unpleasant. It is perhaps the introversive characteristics of the reclusive yogi which makes him spend a massive slice of his life ensconced in a cave, oblivious to the hustle and bustle of everyday life.
  • They are process oriented and tend to avoid competitive situations. An interesting correlation may be drawn with the theory of karma promulgated by the ancient sages of India which postulates rebirth thousands or millions of times until the individual Atman is ready to merge with the Divine Consciousness. Once Swamiji asked Pavhari Baba what the secret of success in work was, to which he replied, ‘The means should be loved and cared for as if it were the end itself.’ This is another way of saying what the Gita teaches: ‘To action man has a right; he has no right to the fruits of action.’ This is in conformity with the process orientation, that introverted Indian culture stands for.
  • They have a rich fantasy life and this may be of aid to people of reclusive habits.
  • They do not usually suffer from boredom.
  • The threshold for pain is lower for the introverts and therefore it may be found that their suffering is disproportionate to the intensity of the painful stimuli.
  • Introverts are more susceptible to punishment.
  • The body temperature of introverts is higher in the morning and early afternoon.

     This has several practical implications. Introverted people seem to function best in the early morning and forenoon. As the day progresses, their body temperatures and their efficiency tend to wane, whereas extroverted people come alive in the afternoon and evening. It is interesting to note that in Vedanta and Yoga philosophies the pre-dawn hours, referred to as brahma-muhurta, are said to be the best time for contemplation and study.

 Extroverts, on the other hand, have a craving for stimulation; they often need change of activity and rest pauses. They are very susceptible to rewards. They are impulsive and are slower to learn the rules of society.

 The introversion-extroversion dichotomy is often overlooked by the layman who thinks that every seeker after truth is fit to be a sannyasin. Many yogis and holy men have spent a lifetime trying to fit their personality into a pattern of renunciation which is not in their nature. Some of them have had to be content with being karma yogis. Ramakrishna Paramahamsa, although he did not put it in these words, was nevertheless aware of the fact that despite the spiritual evolution of Swami Vivekananda he was cut out to be a messenger of spirituality not only to the Western world but also to India. He had the necessary outgoing nature to relate to people of all faiths. One of the essential attributes he had was his innate gift for superb public relations. His target population could be rich or poor, white or brown or black, atheists or believers. He could relate to all of them with great success.

 Swami Vivekananda had always been extroverted and he would never accept anything without questioning. Very often he needed positive proof about everything. For example, during the early days of his discipleship, it was reported to him that Ramakrishna Paramahamsa had renounced wealth, money in particular, and that the very contact with money would cause him discomfort. Vivekananda hid a coin under his guru’s mattress. Ramakrishna, when he occupied his bed, jumped up as if in pain. He made a search of the mattress when the offending coin was found. This was just one of the tests he subjected his guru to. Swami Vivekananda’s food preferences have caused a great deal of furore among his critics, who have accused him of pampering to his bodily needs at the expense of spirituality. Some orthodox Hindus even accused him of eating forbidden food at the table of infidels. He retorted by saying: ‘Do you mean to say I am born to live and die as one of those caste-ridden, superstitious, merciless, hypocritical, atheistic cowards that you only find amongst the educated Hindus? I hate cowardice. I will have nothing to do with cowards.’ Further, ‘I belong as much to India as to the world, no humbug about that. … What country has any special claim on me? Am I any nation’s slave? … I see a greater power than man, or God, or Devil at my back. I require nobody’s help. I have been all my life helping others.’ This is reminiscent of what people said about Jesus when he participated in the social life of his community, eating and drinking with the common people. It has to be pointed out that severe renunciation is very often sought by introverted people whereas the karma yogi, who is usually an extroverted man, does not have to renounce anything but live the life of a householder bearing in mind that every act that he does is for the divinity which resides within and which is all around him. This means that a radical attitudinal change has to be brought about. And this is exactly what Swami Vivekananda did. It has been recorded that once he came across an outcaste puffing away at his pipe. He craved for a smoke and requested a draw from the pipe and enjoyed it, very much to the discomfiture of the man, who was horrified that a high caste man should share a pipe with him.

 Many people talk glibly about the bane of untouchability and how everyone is equal in God’s eyes. But when it comes to the crunch many so-called upper class people would shudder to partake of the food prepared by a person of lower caste. Not Swamiji. He not only practised what he preached, he also accepted everybody as equal without any hint of patronization. Once when he was in Khetri, Rajasthan, people came to him all day long with their questions. Three days and three nights passed in that way. Swamiji was so engrossed in talking about spiritual matters that he did not even stop to eat. No one even asked him whether he wanted to eat or rest. On the last night when all the visitors had left, a poor man came forward and said lovingly, ‘Swamiji, I have noticed that for three days you have not even taken a glass of water! This has pained me very much.’ Swamiji felt as if God himself had come to succour him. He said to the man, ‘Will you please give me something to eat?’ The man, a cobbler by trade, said, ‘My heart yearns to give you some bread, but how can I? My touch will defile the food. If you permit I will bring you some coarse flour and dal and you can prepare them as you please.’ Swamiji said without hesitation, ‘No, my child, give me the bread you have baked. I shall be happy to eat it.’ At first the poor man was frightened because he thought the Maharaja would punish him if he did as Swamiji asked. But the eagerness to serve a monk overpowered his fear. He hurriedly went home and returned with freshly baked bread, which Swamiji ate with relish. It goes to show that in India there are millions of poor people of humble origin who are noble and large-hearted and that, given a chance, they would help other people.

 But Swami Vivekananda also had to learn his lesson about purity and impurity the hard way. Just before his impending departure to America, he was invited by the Maharaja of Khetri to a musical entertainment in which a nautch girl was to sing. Swamiji promptly refused to go since he was a monk and not permitted to enjoy secular pleasures. The singer was hurt and sang that he should not look upon her sins. In her song she said, ‘Is not same-sightedness Thy name?’ Swamiji realized that the girl whom society condemned as impure was nevertheless a precious person in the sight of God. Before God there is no distinction of good and evil, pure and impure. Such pairs of opposites become manifest only when the light of Brahman is obscured by maya. In this connection we have to remember the story of the woman caught in adultery who was brought to Jesus. The punishment among the Jews for adultery was death by stoning. Jesus said to the hostile mob, ‘He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.’ Soon the crowd disappeared, each one being convicted in his own heart!

 It might be worthwhile to relate another of the experiences of Jesus, a Jew by birth and therefore supposed to be superior to the gentiles. A publican named Levi hosted a very big feast for Jesus. The scribes and Pharisees, the cream of Jewry, took Jesus and his disciples to task, saying, ‘Why do you eat and drink with publicans and sinners?’ Jesus answered, ‘They that are whole need not a physician; but they that are sick. I came not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.’

 One of the outstanding gifts Swamiji had was the ability to chastise his friends and disciples without causing offence, although it was not always so. His hostess in America, Miss Dutcher, a conscientious Methodist Christian, could not take in with equanimity Swami Vivekananda’s revolutionary ideas. She became physically ill and was not seen at the meetings for a number of days. One sometimes wonders how Swamiji could be so tactless as to offend a lady who had befriended him and who had placed at his disposal her own large mansion, even building an annexe for him to stay. Miss Ellen Waldo, another of his disciples, was once in tears. On being asked why, she replied, ‘I seem unable to please you. Even when other people annoy you, you scold me for it.’ He said, ‘I do not know those other people well enough to scold them. So I come to you. Whom can I scold if I cannot scold my own?’ When Swamiji had to speak in Boston, he looked at the artificial and worldly crowd of people and contrasted it with his master’s purity and renunciation. He berated them mercilessly for the hypocrisy and shallow nature of Western culture. The audience was resentful and many left the meeting in anger. However, on returning home, Swamiji recalled what Ramakrishna Paramahamsa had said about tolerance, and he wept. His master had never uttered a word of condemnation against anyone.

 However, Swamiji tried hard to adhere to the principle of seeing God in every living being, which is what his master was at pains to teach him. His personal ideal was that of the sannyasin who during the First War of Independence (known as the Sepoy Mutiny in the West), when he was stabbed by a British soldier, said to his murderer with his dying breath, ‘And thou also art He.’ Then there is the tale of the saint who ran after a thief with the vessels he had dropped in his terror at being discovered. The saint then said, ‘O Lord, I knew not that Thou wast there! Take them, they are Thine! Pardon me, Thy child.’ This is reminiscent of the story of the bishop’s candlesticks in which the thief, who was the bishop’s guest, stole his silver candlesticks and tried to abscond with them. The police apprehended him with the booty whereupon the bishop made the remark that the silver was his gift to the man. The idea of recognizing an enemy would have seemed to Swamiji’s mind a proof of hatred.

 Swamiji’s reverence for Buddha was one of the passions of his life. Sister Nivedita relates with considerable feeling, how one evening Swamiji sat with his disciples reconstructing the story of Siddhartha’s renunciation as it must have appeared to his wife Yashodhara. On the night of the fateful farewell Prince Siddhartha returned again and again to the bedside of his sleeping wife. It was she whom he was about to sacrifice for the sake of the world. That was his struggle. Then the final farewell with that gentle kiss on the foot of the princess. During the seven years of the prince’s absence , Yashodhara had lived clad in the yellow cloth, eating only roots and fruits, and had not used a bed. On his return as Buddha, she took the hem of his garment while he told their son the Truth. When the child asked, ‘Mother, who is my father?’ her answer was, ‘The lion that passes down the street, lo, he is thy father.’ When the lad, at his mother’s behest, asked his father to give him his inheritance, he had to ask thrice before Buddha turned to Ananda, his disciple, and said, ‘Give it.’ Thereupon the disciple threw the gerua cloth over the child. On Ananda’s asking his master whether he should also bestow on Yashodhara the ochre cloth, Buddha assented. Thus Yashodhara became his disciple. One of the first things that Swami Vivekananda did after receiving the ochre cloth from his master was to go to Bodh Gaya and sit under the great tree where Buddha was said to have attained his enlightenment.

 There were many reasons why Swamiji was so impressed by Buddha. The fact that Buddha kept in abeyance his own attainment of nirvana till all sentient beings on earth had attained that state, appealed to the sense of fair play that Swamiji espoused at all times. The work that Buddha did for helping the poor people, especially the outcastes, was something Swami Vivekananda had always done. To this day, Buddhists abhor the existence of the caste system. The very establishment of the Ramakrishna Mission was the culmination of Swami Vivekananda’s desire to uplift the Indian masses. He believed, for instance, that it was important to help other people even at the risk of retarding his own spiritual growth. On one occasion he remarked, ‘Of course I would commit a crime and go to hell for ever, if by that I could really help a human being.’ Like Buddha he also believed that the Truth should be accessible to every human being. He was fond of giving the example of Ramanuja, who broke his vow of secrecy and proclaimed the sacred mantra to all. One wonders whether any human being is ever unworthy or unready to hear the Truth!

 It is perhaps a mark of the sannyasin that he is not afraid of physical dangers. Swami Vivekananda had to learn this fact perhaps the hard way. The first experience was when as a young swami he was pursued by a band of monkeys. He was afraid they would harm him. An old sannyasin, who happened to be nearby, said to him, ‘Face the brutes.’ This is what Vivekananda did and the monkeys ran away. He never forgot this lesson. Much later when Swamiji was in England, he happened to visit a farm in the company of an Englishman and Miss Muller. An enraged bull charged at the little group. The Englishman ran for his life and reached the safety of a hill. Miss Muller ran as fast as she could but fell, being incapable of further effort. Swamiji, seeing her predicament, stood in front of her with folded arms. When it neared him, the bull suddenly stopped, turned and walked away. One of the thoughts that had preoccupied Swamiji’s mind then was the distance that the bull would be able to toss him and whether he was to die in such a violent manner. It is also on record how he, as a young boy, had saved a child from being trampled under the hooves of a horse in Calcutta.

 One of the important things that Swamiji did during the last few years of his life was this: he paid more attention to people doing social work to raise the living conditions of the poor and downtrodden. He scoffed at the idea of people looking for their own salvation by austerities and meditation. This is in accordance with his extroverted personality, which determined his preference for action rather than contemplation alone. It has to be remembered that he was a karma yogi, which is symbolized by his organizational capacity resulting in the establishment of the Ramakrishna Mission in India and by his work in America and England. The Ramakrishna Mission as it is constituted now has an important arm which deals with the uplift of the poor and illiterate. However, when he was not engaged strenuously in his active work, he could meditate for a long time. It is on record that in India and in the USA he experienced nirvikalpa samadhi many times. In this regard one may say that he is not a typical example of an extroverted man. I hasten to add that every rule has its exception. It has been said that when he was a young novice under the wing of the Paramahamsa, Ramakrishna asked him what he wanted most in life. Naren, as he was known then, promptly replied, ‘To remain always in samadhi’. Ramakrishna remarked, ‘I thought you had been born for something greater, my boy.’ This set Swamiji thinking. Thus he stood for work without attachment or work for impersonal ends as one of the highest expressions of the religious life. Very soon an order of monks was formed with their faces set primarily towards new forms of civic duty. This was the beginning of the Ramakrishna Mission.

 Every thinking person who reads Swami Vivekananda’s life would be intrigued to find that he rarely spoke about his mentor and preceptor in public, especially in America. One wonders why he did not, for instance, publicize the teachings of Ramakrishna Paramahamsa at the Parliament of Religions. Sister Nivedita had this to say: ‘He never in public mentioned his own Master, nor spoke in specific terms of any part of Hindu mythology.’ At one stage Max Muller, the orientalist, asked him what he was doing to make his guru Ramakrishna Paramahamsa known to the world. At that time Max Muller was writing a biography of the Master and he enquired whether Vivekananada could procure some material for this endeavour. Instead of directly acquiescing to this request Swamiji asked a colleague, namely Swami Saradananda, to write down the sayings of Sri Ramakrishna and the biographical facts of his life. Later Max Muller incorporated these in his bookRamakrishna: His Life and Sayings. Vivekananda explained in the following words why he himself had not written about the Master’s life:

 I have such deep feelings for the Master that it is impossible for me to write about him for the public. If I had written the article Max Muller wanted, then I would have proved, quoting from philosophies, the scriptures and even the holy books of the Christians that Ramakrishna was the greatest of all prophets born in the world. That would have been too much for the old man. You have not thought so deeply about the Master as I have; hence you could write an unbiased account that would satisfy Max Muller. Therefore I asked you to write.

 Whatever explanation Swamiji was able to offer in this regard remains shrouded in mystery. Indeed no satisfactory explanation exists or is possible.

 Swamiji had his share of hecklers too. Fortunately, these people were not shallow troublemakers but sincere seekers after truth. Once a white-haired philosopher said to Swamiji at the end of a lecture, ‘You have spoken splendidly, sir, but you have told us nothing new.’ Swamiji was quick to reply, ‘Sir, I have told you the Truth. That, the Truth, is as old as the immemorial hills, as old as humanity, as old as creation, as old as the Great God. If I have told you in such words as will make you think, make you live up to your thinking, do I not do well in telling it?’ Vivekananda was a master of repartee. Once during question time, a native of Scotland made a snide remark by asking, ‘What is the difference between a baboo and a baboon?’ Swamiji’s instantaneous reply was: ‘Oh, not much, it is like the difference between a sot and a Scot – just the difference of a letter.’ Although Swamiji was abrupt with facetious, insincere people, he was never known to show the slightest impatience at being interrupted by sincere seekers after truth, of whom there were many in his audience.

 One of the things we have to remember is that Swami Vivekananda was born endowed with certain gifts, one of which was his phenomenal memory and an ability to speak in public. Even as a schoolboy these characteristics came to light. At school one day, he was regaling his classmates with a story. When the teacher came into the room and started teaching, the children were still listening to Narendra’s story. All this whispering and inattention to his teaching enraged the teacher, who questioned his pupils as to what he was saying. No one could answer. But Narendra was able to repeat word for word what the teacher had said. This proved that he could attend to two things at the same time. Psychologists will tell you that it is impossible to do this. However, Indians have always spoken about some gifted people who could have what is called ashtavadhana, the ability to attend to eight different things at the same time! Later on, while at Belur Math, Swamiji wanted to go through the Encylopaedia Britannica. After perusing some of these volumes for a few days, he could accurately remember much of the contents.

 During the early days of his explorations, Swami Vivekananda travelled widely all over India, many a time without food. His aim was to travel to Kanyakumari. He always proceeded alone on these journeys quoting the famous words of Buddha: ‘Even as the lion not trembling at noises, even as the wind not caught in a net, even as the lotus leaf untouched by the water, so do thou wander alone like the rhinoceros.’ After reaching Kanyakumari he worshipped Devi Kanyakumari in the shrine and then swam across the shark-infested waters to meditate on the rocks where, according to the Puranas, the Devi had performed tapasya.

 Any account of the life of Vivekananda cannot be complete without a narration of what happened at the Parliament of Religions in Chicago. To start with, the Maharaja of Khetri was responsible for introducing two important things into the life of Swamiji. It was he who suggested that he take the name of Vivekananda, perhaps to emphasize his wisdom and knowledge. Secondly, the prince bought a first-class ticket on the ship SS Peninsular of the P & O Company. Besides this he also provided a robe of orange silk, an ochre turban and a handsome purse. Swamiji enjoyed the voyage because he could go sightseeing at various ports of call, Colombo, Singapore, Hong Kong and Yokohama. From Vancouver in Canada, he travelled by train to Chicago. He arrived too early for the Parliament and did not have the necessary accreditation from a well-known institution. Moreover, his funds were dwindling. It is to the credit of American women that some of the very wealthy ones came to his help and extended their hospitality to him. Although he had stage fright in the beginning, when he did speak to the gathering, his first words, ‘Sisters and Brothers of America’, drew the people to a standing ovation. What he did was open the eyes of the Americans to the message of Vedanta. Swamiji made clear to the people there that unlike many other religions, Hinduism was a tolerant approach to life which admitted the divinity of many religious leaders like Jesus, Muhammad and others. It is not possible here to go into details about his message to the West but it can be summed up in the words of St Paul, ‘And now abideth faith, hope and love: but the greatest of these is love.’

Some Pithy Sayings of Swamiji

  • ‘It is well to be born in a church, but it is terrible to die there.’
  • ‘What the world wants is character. The world is in need of those whose life is one burning love, selfless. That love will make every word tell like thunderbolt. … Awake, awake, great ones! The world is burning with misery. Can you sleep?’
  • ‘Silence! ye teachers of the world, and silence! ye prophets! Speak Thou alone, O Lord, unto my soul!’ (In the context of Thomas a Kempis’ Imitation of Christ.)
  • ‘It is a sin even to think of the body.’
  • ‘It is wrong to manifest power.’