Dr R Balashankar
THE Life of Swami Vivekananda By His Eastern and Western Disciples is a wonderful biography that catches the great Swamiji in all his diverse moods. It is full of anecdotes, gripping encounters, fascinating, inspiring and moving incidents from the 39 years of Swamiji’s life. Life that electrified and transformed Indian history as nothing else in the past 150 years. Indians are good at celebrating jayantis(birthdays) of their leaders. It’s often the pompousness, the glamour and the volume of the event that get highlighted than the message of the master. So here are a few gleanings from Vivekananda’s life as narrated by his disciples to give a glimpse of that magnificent personality.
The biography reveals how profound, prolific and persistent Swami was in his mission. Till the last breath he served the Motherland. In a letter to Mrs (Ole) Bull about some of his friends in Japan, few days before his Mahasamadhi, Swami wrote, “Young Hori had an attack of fever here, came round in a few days, and has gone with Okakura for a few days. He is liked by everybody for his religious nature. He has great ideas of sexual purity, and his ambition is to start a fresh band of monks in Japan conforming strictly to chastity; but in my opinion a race must first cultivate the great respect for Motherhood, through the sanctification and inviolability of marriage, before it can attain to the ideal of perfect chastity…”. How relevant his thoughts are in today’s context!
Sister Nivedita, introducing many significant facts in connection with the Swami’s passing away and his foreknowledge of it, writes: “Personal revelation was so rare with him,.. on returning from the cave of Amarnath, in that same summer of 1898, had he not said, laughingly, that he had there received the grace of Amarnath—not to die till he himself should will to do so? Now this, seeming to promise that death would never take him by surprise, had corresponded so well with the prophecy of Shri Ramakrishna—that when he should know who and what he was, he would refuse to remain a moment longer in the body—that one had banished from one’s mind all anxiety on this score, and even his own grave and significant words at the present time did not suffice to revive it.”
“It would seem, indeed, that, in his withdrawal from all weakness and attachment, there was one exception. That, which had ever been dearer to him than life, kept till its power to move him. It was on the last Sunday before the end that he said to one of his disciples, “You know, the work is always my weak point! When I think that might come to an end, I am all undone!”
“On Wednesday [July 2, 1902] of the same week, the day being Ekadashi, and himself keeping the fast in all strictness, he insisted on serving the morning meal to the same disciple [Nivedita]. Each dish as it was offered—boiled seeds of the jackfruit, boiled potatoes, plain rice, and ice-cold milk—formed the subject of playful chat; and finally, to end the meal, he himself poured the water over the hands, and dried them with a towel.
“It is me who should do these things for you, Swamiji! Not you for me!” was the protest naturally offered. But his answer was startling in its solemnity—“Jesus washed the feet of His disciples!”
“Something checked the answer—“But that was the last time!”—as it rose to the lips, and the words remained unuttered. This was well. For here also, the last time had come,” wrote Nivedita.
Vivekananda who confessed that work was his weakness and solitary attachment till the last proved it in life. On the day of the Mahasamadhi, whether consciously or intuitively, his actions were most deliberate and full of meaning. His solitary meditation for three hours in the morning from eight to eleven was the most striking. Descending the stairs of the shrine, he walked back and forth in the courtyard of the monastery, his mind withdrawn. Suddenly the tenseness of his thought expressed itself in a whisper loud enough to be heard by Swami Premananda who was nearby. The Swami was saying to himself, “If there were another Vivekananda, he would have understood what Vivekananda has done! And yet, how many Vivekanandas shall be born in time!!” This remark startled his brother-disciple, for never did the Swami speak thus, save when the flood-gates of his soul were thrown open and the living waters of the highest Consciousness rushed forth.
At 1 p.m., a quarter of an hour after the midday repast, the Swami entered the Brahmacharis’ room and called them to attend the class on Sanskrit grammar. One who attended this class writes: “The class lasted for nearly three hours. But no monotony was felt. For he (the Swami) would tell a witty story or make bons mots now and then to lighten his teaching, as he was wont to do. Sometimes the joke would be with reference to the wording of a certain aphorism, or he would make an amusing play upon its words knowing that the fun would make it easier for recollection. On this particular day he spoke of how he had coached his college friends, Dasharathi Sanyal, in English history in one night by following a similar process. He, however, appeared a little tired after the grammar class.”
Some time later the Swami, accompanied by Swami Premananda, went out for a long walk, as far as the Belur Bazaar, and spoke with his brother-disciple on many interesting subjects, particularly on his proposed scheme of founding a Vedic college in the monastery. In order to have a clearer understanding of what the Swami felt on the matter, Swami Premananda asked, “What will be the good of studying the Vedas, Swamiji?” To this the Swami replied, “It will kill out superstitions!”
Swami Vivekananda is the icon of resurgent India because he propounded the most virile and practical form of Hinduism. He was certainly the greatest Indian the world has seen in the last 150 years. He was born six years after the disastrous first war of India’s independence, and the same year when the US fought the civil war. To appreciate Swami Vivekananda’s lasting impact on the course of Indian history one has to imagine what the fate of the country and its civilization would have been had he not lived on this earth. India was politically, spiritually, culturally and economically down in the dumps after the failure of the war of independence in 1857. The British suzerainty was at its peak, Hinduism the culture of India drained and depressed, a defeated and humiliated race uncharacteristically inadequate and unprepared to fight back.
Vivekananda came like a colossus, a conquering prophet. He won hearts, bloodlessly, not territories. He restored India’s pride. Prepared it for a long haul. Like Sri Krishna in the Kurukshetra, he reignited and rekindled the smriti (memories) of our glorious past. He redefined and restated the magnificent divinity of our cultural heritage. He revived the spirit of India. And declared the invincibility and superiority of this religious treasure to the world so that the ideas of proselytizing India entertained by the missionaries suffered a setback. For this, he took the war to the Vatican of evangelical activism. They had to be told the futility of their enterprise, first, before rebuilding the sagging spirit of India.
Was Swamiji an avatara? The task that Swamiji undertook was Herculean. Swamiji speaks stirringly, “again and again has our country fallen into a swoon, as it were, and again and again has India’s Lord, by the manifestation of Himself, revived her”..India is always singled out, rather chosen for this special divine attention, he reiterated. Because, in his own words, the treatment is special, it has significance for souls all over the world. India is the punya bhumi, land of goodness, karma bhumi, land of duty. Swamiji in his speech in Chennai on his return from the West in 1897 says, “Formerly, I thought as every Hindu thinks that this is the punya bhumi. Today I stand here and say with the conviction of truth, that it is so. If there is any land on this earth, that can lay claim to be the blessed punya bhumi, to be the land to which all souls on this earth must come to account for karma, the land to which every soul that is wandering its way Godward must come to attain its last home, the land where humanity has attained its highest towards purity, towards calmness, above all, the land of introspection and spirituality, — it is India”. The Western world saluted him when he made them aware of India’s past and glory. This aspect is beautifully compiled in a recently published book, Vivekananda:
His Gospel of Man Making by Swami Jyotirmayananda.
We were discussing whether Swamiji was an avatara, as Sri Krishna reveals in the Bhagawad Gita about the inevitability of divine incarnation for the restoration of dharma. He was very much human, perhaps the greatest humanist India produced in the last two centuries. After a few hours of discussions with Swamiji, Prof JH Wright of Harvard University was to commit: “Swami,, to ask you for your credentials (to address the World Conference of Religions) is like questioning the ever-bright sun his right to shine.” The year was 1893. In a letter to Rev Barrows, who was organising the Parliament, Prof Wright commended, “Here is a man who is more learned than all the Professors of America put together.” Vivekananda indeed went on to prove it. An American academician said of him: “Here is a man who knows what he is talking about. He is not relating what he thinks; he is telling what he knows. When I was asked what sort of man he was, I replied: “He is not a man, he is God!”
Though outwardly a man of Jnana, he was full of Bhakti within. One day, he said to a young brother-disciple who was disturbed because of his failure to realise God: “Have you not read the Gita? God is residing in the hearts of all creatures. He is, as it were, revolving the wheel of life to which we are tied. You are more insignificant than even the crawling worm. Can you really know God? Try to think for a minute of the real nature of man. Of these innumerable stars, every one is a solar system. We see only one solar system and know only an infinitesimal fraction of that. The earth compared with the sun is like a little ball and man but an insect moving on its surface.” Then he burst into a song, resigning himself to God and beseeching His aid in steering clear of the pitfalls and temptations of the world. Again he said to the brother-disciple: “Take refuge in God. Resign yourself completely at His feet. Don’t you remember the words of Shri Ramakrishna? God is like a hill of sugar. You are an ant. One grain of sugar is sufficient for you. Yet you want to carry home the entire hill.” (The Life Of Swami Vivekananda, Vol.I).
In his lecture on the sages of India Swamiji said, “But you find in the Gita there is no attempt at torturing any one of them(on various paths to God). They are all right, says the Lord, for slowly and gradually the human soul rises up and up, step after step, from the gross to the fine, from the fine to the finer, until it reaches the Absolute, the goal. That is what is in the Gita. Even the Karma Kanda is taken up, and it is shown that although it cannot give salvation direct, but only indirectly, yet that is also valid; images are valid indirectly; ceremonies, forms, everything is valid only with one condition, purity of the heart. For worship is valid and leads to the goal if the heart is pure and the heart is sincere.”(Lectures from Colombo to Almora)
On Ramakrishna, note Vivekananda’s words on the timing of his appearance on earth. “The time was ripe, it was necessary that such a man should be born, and he came; and the most wonderful part of it was that his life’s work was just near a city which was full of Western thought, a city which had run mad after these occidental ideas, a city which had become more Europeanised than any other city in India. There he lived, without any book-learning whatsoever; this great intellect never learnt even to write his own name, but the most brilliant graduates of our university found in him an intellectual giant. He was a strange man, this Shri Ramakrishna Paramahamsa”.
This is why we call Vivekananda the warrior prophet of emergent India. Vivekananda once said: “Man-making is my mission in life. I never make plans. Plans grow and work themselves.” Swamiji’s influence on shaping Indian freedom movement is well known. He inspired the freedom fighters, perhaps it was the fire he ignited that spread into the wide mass awakening against the Bengal partition that frustrated the British design. The partition was undone.
Swamiji was again the first to reinterpret Bhagawad Gita as the modern Indian manifesto of liberation, emancipation and social justice. In this he reinvigorated the Hindu tradition and reinforced its matchless virtue. He showed that “Gita projects the masses to the centre stage of life by marshalling the notions of naranarayana and daridranarayana. He accused the priesthood of reading the text as defending privileged interests, which while denying the access of the Gita to people at large also led to the cultural degradation of India.(The Bhagavadgita in the Nationalist Discourse, by Nagappa Gowda K, Oxford University Press).
Vivekananda expounded the principles of ethical nationalism. His contribution to Indian thought are contained in the Complete Works consisting of nine large volumes where he explains critically his treatise on Indian philosophy, ancient Indian traditions, social structures, and cultural heritage. He is sometimes critical of aspects of Vedas, Upanishads and puranas but he is profoundly appreciative of the Gita and its hero Sri Krishna. Vivekananda was clear that the Indian nation should have an ethical foundation and that its socio-political system be adjudged on such a foundation. For Vivekananda, the Gita is the ‘loftiest of all the ancient scriptures,’ which outlines its moral philosophy as greatly appealing to popular emotions.
The nationalist discourse of Vivekananda sees the Gita as providing a suitable moral basis for the Indian nation. It’s from the Gita that Vivekananda scripted his socialist, humane emphasis for national awakening. Its values are universal and all-inclusive, particularly for those who were marginalized, doing menial jobs, the weak and despised. Gita’s meta-physical basis for the equality of all individuals suggests practices that are less ritualistic and more practical (Thoughts on the Gita).
Human memory is the ladder on which a country and a people advance. Vivekananda prophetically said, “The longest nights are to be passing away, the sorest trouble seems to be coming to an end at last, the seeming corpse appears to be awaking and a voice is coming to us – away back where history and even tradition fails to peep into the gloom of the past, coming down from there, reflected as it were from peak to peak of the infinite Himalaya of knowledge, and of love, and of work. India, this motherland of ours, — a voice is coming unto us, gentle, firm, and yet unmistakable in its utterances, and is gaining volume as days pass by, and behold, the sleeper is awaking. Like a breeze from the Himalayas, it is bringing life into the almost dead bones and muscles, the lethargy is passing away and only the blind cannot see, or the perverted will not see, that she is awaking, the motherland of ours, from her deep long sleep. None can resist her anymore, never is she going to sleep anymore, no outward powers can hold her back anymore, for the infinite giant is rising on her feet.”
He perhaps foresaw the great youth advantage India was to enjoy in the 21st century. The world is aging.India has 459 million people in the age group 13-35, which is 45 per cent of our population. Happily, 62 per cent of the literate Indian youth live in villages. Demographers say that the youth advantage for a nation is a once in the history opportunity. India’s own youth population in the age group of 15 to 25, which is 240 million, is likely to go down to 231 million in the next ten years. Consequent on longer life expectancy, our old population will increase with the passage of time though it will take many centuries for India to arrive at the dismal picture of the West when we become intolerant to child noise.
A new book, The Power of Place by Harm De Blij argues: geography, destiny, globalisation’s rough landscape; make the context, the place more relevant in determining the future of the people. “Earth may be a planet of shrinking functional distances, but it remains a world of staggering situational differences… From uneven distribution of natural resources to the unequal availability of opportunity, place remains a powerful arbitrator. Many hundreds of millions of farmers… live their lives much as their distant ancestors did, still remote from the forces of globalization, children as well as adults still at high personal risks and great material disadvantage. Tens of millions of habitants…are as bound to their isolated abodes as their forefathers were…the overwhelming majority of (seven billion) world population – the myth of mass migration notwithstanding-will die very near the (habitat) they were born.”
See this in the context of Vivekananda’s comment on the West’s influence on India and relevance of Ramakrishna. He wanted Hindu values more than anything, to dominate and guide Indian renaissance and recovery.
Harm De Blij argues that despite the hoopla of the flattening world, a vast majority of people in most countries will have worn the same garb, spoken the same language, professed the faith, shared the health conditions, absorbed the education, acquired the attitudes, and inherited the legacy that constitute the power of place (of their birth) the accumulated geography whose formative imprint still dominate.
Vivekananda was barely thirty, when he addressed the Parliament of Religions. Romain Rolland, in his biography of Vivekananda said his “pre-eminent characteristic was kingliness!” He stood up to all critics of Hinduism as only he could: in a majestic, unassailable way. When he said in the course of his brief first address at Chicago, what the Gita said of religion, it must have touched the thousands to the core of their hearts. As he said: “Whosoever comes to Me, through whatsoever form, I reach him. All men are struggling through paths which, in the end, lead to Me.” Commenting on that speech, The New York Herald wrote: “He is undoubtedly the greatest figure in the Parliament of Religions. After hearing him, we feel how foolish it is to send Missionaries to this learned nation.”
Will Durant, the distinguished American historian wrote: “He (Vivekananda) preached to his countrymen a more virile creed than any Hindu had offered them since Vedic days.” Vivekananda’s admirers’ list is endless. And it only gets longer with every passing day. He said, “Religion is not for an empty stomach”. In fact, he was also the first modern egalitarian India has seen. He was India’s renaissance guru. He focused as much on reforming the Hindu society as he stressed on the details of building a new India. As much as he emphasized on the spiritual and religious aspects of this renewal he insisted on physical prowess and scientific temper. Prof AL Basham (The Wonder that was India) wrote, “It is very difficult to evaluate his (Vivekananda’s) importance in the scale of world history. It is certainly far greater than any western historian or most Indian historians would have suggested at the time of his death… he will be remembered as one of the main moulders of the modern world… and as one of the most significant figures in the whole history of Indian religion…”.
1. Vivekananda: His Gospel of Man-Making Compiled and edited by Swami Jyotirmayananda,
2. The Life of Swami Vivekananda by His Eastern and Western Disciples.
3. Complete Works, nine volumes.
4. Lectures From Colombo To Almora, Swami Vivekananda.
5. Prabuddha Bharata Issues.
6.The Bhagavadgita in the Nationalist Discourse by Nagappa