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Biography of Swami Vivekananda - Vedanta in America
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After the meetings of the Parliament of Religions were concluded, Swami Vivekananda, as already noted, under took a series of apostolic campaigns in order to sow the seed of the Vedantic truths in the ready soil of America. Soon he discovered that the lecture bureau was exploiting him. Further, he did not like its method of advertisement. He was treated as if he were the chief attraction of a circus. The prospectus included his portrait, with the inscription, proclaiming his cardinal virtues: 'An Orator by Divine Right; a Model Representative of his Race; a Perfect master of the English Language; the Sensation of the World's Fair Parliament.' It also described his physical bearing, his height, the colour of his skin, and his clothing. The Swami felt disgusted at being treated like a patent medicine or an elephant in a show. So he severed his relationship with the bureau and arranged his own lectures himself. He accepted invitation from churches, clubs, and private gatherings, and travelled extensively through the Eastern and Midwestern states of America, delivering twelve to fourteen or more lectures a week.
People came in hundreds and in thousands. And what an assorted audience he had to face! There came to his meetings professors from universities, ladies of fine breeding, seekers of truth, and devotees of God with childlike faith. But mixed with these were charlatans, curiosity-seekers, idlers, and vagabonds. It is not true that he met everywhere with favourable conditions. Leon Landsberg, one of the Swami's American disciples, thus described Vivekananda's tribulations of those days:
The Americans are a receptive nation. That is why the country is a hotbed of all kinds of religious and irreligious monstrosities. There is no theory so absurd, no doctrine so irrational, no claim so extravagant, no fraud so transparent, but can find their numerous believers and a ready market. To satisfy this craving, to feed the credulity of the people, hundreds of societies and sects are born for the salvation of the world, and to enable the prophets to pocket $25 to $100 initiation fees. Hobgoblins, spooks, mahatmas, and new prophets were rising every day. In this bedlam of religious cranks, the Swami appeared to teach the lofty religion of the Vedas, the profound philosophy of Vedanta, the sublime wisdom of the ancient rishis. The most unfavourable environment for such a task!
The Swami met with all kinds of obstacles. The opposition of fanatical Christian missionaries was, of course, one of these. They promised him help if he only would preach their brand of Christianity. When the Swami refused, they circulated all sorts of filthy stories about him, and even succeeded in persuading some of the Americans who had previously invited him to be their guest, to cancel the invitations. But Vivekananda continued to preach the religion of love, renunciation, and truth as taught by Christ, and so show him the highest veneration as a Saviour of mankind. How significant were his words: 'It is well to be born in a church, but it is terrible to die there!' Needless to say, he meant by the word church all organized religious institutions. How like a thunderbolt the words fell upon the ears of his audience when one day he exclaimed: 'Christ, Buddha, and Krishna are but waves in the Ocean of Infinite Consciousness that I am!'
Then there were the leaders of the cranky, selfish, and fraudulent organizations, who tried to induce the Swami to embrace their cause, first by promises of support, and then by threats of injuring him if he refused to ally himself with them. But he could be neither bought nor frightened — 'the sickle had hit on a stone,' as the Polish proverb says. To all these propositions his only answer was: 'I stand for Truth. Truth will never ally itself with falsehood. Even if all the world should be against me, Truth must prevail in the end.'
But the more powerful enemies he had to face were among the so-called free-thinkers, embracing the atheists, materialists, agnostics, rationalists, and others of similar breed who opposed anything associated with God or religion. Thinking that they would easily crush his ancient faith by arguments drawn from Western philosophy and science, they organized a meeting in New York and invited the Swami to present his views.
'I shall never forget that memorable evening' wrote an American disciple, 'when the Swami appeared single-handed to face the forces of materialism, arrayed in the heaviest armour of law, and reason, and logic, and common sense, of matter, and force, and heredity, and all the stock phrases calculated to awe and terrify the ignorant. Imagine their surprise when they found that far from being intimidated by these big words, he proved himself a master in wielding their own weapons, and as familiar with the arguments of materialism as with those of Advaita philosophy. He showed them that their much vaunted Western science could not answer the most vital questions of life and being, that their immutable laws, so much talked of, had no outside existence apart from the human mind, that the very idea of matter was a metaphysical conception, and that it was much despised metaphysics upon which ultimately rested the very basis of their materialism. With an irresistible logic he demonstrated that their knowledge proved itself incorrect, not by comparison with that which was true, but by the very laws upon which it depended for its basis; that pure reason could not help admitting its own limitations and pointed to something beyond reason; and that rationalism, when carried to its last consequences, must ultimately land us at something which is above matter, above force, above sense, above thought, and even consciousness, and of which all these are but manifestations.'
As a result of his explaining the limitations of science, a number of people from the group of free-thinkers attended the Swami's meeting the next day and listened to his uplifting utterances on God and religion.
What an uphill work it was for Swami Vivekananda to remove the ignorance, superstition, and perverted ideas about religion in general and Hinduism in particular! No wonder he sometimes felt depressed. In one of these moods he wrote from Detroit, on March 15, 1894, to the Hale sisters in Chicago:
But I do not know — I have become very sad in my heart since I am here. I do not know why. I am wearied of lecturing and all that nonsense. This mixing with hundreds of human animals, male and female, has disturbed me. I will tell you what is to my taste. I cannot write — cannot speak — but I can think deep, and when I am heated can speak fire. But it should be to a select few — a very select few. And let them carry and sow my ideas broadcast if they will — not I. It is only a just division of labour. The same man never succeeded in thinking and in casting his thoughts all around. Such thoughts are not worth a penny. ... I am really not 'cyclonic' at all — far from it. What I want is not here — nor can I longer bear this cyclonic atmosphere. Calm, cool, nice, deep, penetrating, independent, searching thought — a few noble pure mirrors which will reflect it back, catch it until all of them sound in unison. Let others throw it to the outside world if they will. This is the way to perfection — to be prefect, to make perfect a few men and women. My idea of doing good is this — to evolve a few giants, and not to strew pearls to the swine and lose time, breath, and energy. ... Well, I do not care for lecturing any more. It is too disgusting to bring me to suit anybody's or any audience's fad.
Swami Vivekananda became sick of what he termed 'the nonsense of public life and newspaper blazoning.'
The Swami had sincere admirers and devotees among the Americans, who looked after his comforts, gave him money when he lacked it, and followed his instructions. He was particularly grateful to American women, and wrote many letters to his friends in India paying high praise to their virtues.
In one letter he wrote:
'Nowhere in the world are women like those of this country. How pure, independent, self-relying, and kind-hearted! It is the women who are the life and soul of this country. All learning and culture are centred in them.'
In another letter:
'[Americans] look with veneration upon women, who play a most prominent part in their lives. Here this form of worship has attained its perfection — this is the long and short of it. I am almost at my wit's end to see the women of this country. They are Lakshmi, the Goddess of Fortune, in beauty, and Sarasvati, the Goddess of Learning, in virtues — they are the Divine Mother incarnate. If I can raise a thousand such Madonnas — incarnations of the Divine Mother — in our country before I die, I shall die in peace. Then only will our countrymen become worthy of their name.'
Perhaps his admiration reached its highest pitch in a letter to the Maharaja of Khetri, which he wrote in 1894:
American women! A hundred lives would not be sufficient to pay my deep debt of gratitude to you! Last year I came to this country in summer, a wandering preacher of a far distant country, without name, fame, wealth, or learning to recommend me — friendless, helpless, almost in a state of destitution; and American women befriended me, gave me shelter and food, took me to their homes, and treated me as their own son, their own brother. They stood as my friends even when their own priests were trying to persuade them to give up the 'dangerous heathen' — even when, day after day, their best friends had told them not to stand by this 'unknown foreigner, maybe of dangerous character.' But they are better judges of character and soul — for it is the pure mirror that catches the reflection.
And how many beautiful homes I have seen, how many mothers whose purity of character, whose unselfish love for their children, are beyond expression, how many daughters and pure maidens, 'pure as the icicle on Diana's temple' — and withal much culture, education, and spirituality in the highest sense! Is America, then, only full of wingless angels in the shape of women? There are good and bad everywhere, true — but a nation is not to be judged by its weaklings, called the wicked, for they are only the weeds which lag behind, but by the good, the noble and the pure, who indicate the national life-current to be flowing clear and vigorous.
And how bitter the Swami felt when he remembered the sad plight of the women of India! He particularly recalled the tragic circumstances under which one of his own sisters had committed suicide. He often thought that the misery of India was largely due to the ill-treatment the Hindus meted out to their womenfolk. Part of the money earned by his lectures was sent to a foundation for Hindu widows at Baranagore. He also conceived the idea of sending to India women teachers from the West for the intellectual regeneration of Hindu women.
Swami Vivekananda showed great respect for the fundamentals of American culture. He studied the country's economic policy, industrial organizations, public instruction, and its museums and art galleries, and wrote to India enthusiastically about them. He praised highly the progress of science, hygiene, institutions, and social welfare work. He realized that such noble concepts as the divinity of the soul and the brotherhood of men were mere academic theories in present-day India, whereas America showed how to apply them in life. He felt indignant when he compared the generosity and liberality of the wealthy men of America in the cause of social service, with the apathy of the Indians as far as their own people were concerned.
'No religion on earth,' he wrote angrily, 'preaches the dignity of humanity in such a lofty strain as Hinduism, and no religion on earth treads upon the necks of the poor and the low in such a fashion as Hinduism. Religion is not at fault, but it is the Pharisees and Sadducees.'
How poignant must have been his feelings when he remembered the iniquities of the caste-system! 'India's doom was sealed,' he wrote, 'the very day they invented the word mlechcha* and stopped from communion with others.' When he saw in New York a millionaire woman sitting side by side in a tram-car with a negress with a wash-basket on her lap, he was impressed with the democratic spirit of the Americans. He wanted in India 'an organization that will teach the Hindus mutual help and appreciation' after the pattern of Western democracies.
Incessantly he wrote to his Indian devotees about the regeneration of the masses. In a letter dated 1894 he said:
Let each one of us pray, day and night, for the downtrodden millions in India, who are held fast by poverty, priestcraft, and tyranny — pray day and night for them. I care more to preach religion to them than to the high and the rich. I am no metaphysician, no philosopher, nay, no saint. But I am poor, I love the poor.... Who feels in India for the three hundred millions of men and women sunken for ever in poverty and ignorance? Where is the way out? Who feels for them? Let these people be your God — think of them, work for them, pray for them incessantly — the Lord will show you the way. Him I call a mahatma, a noble soul, whose heart bleeds for the poor; otherwise he is a duratma, a wicked soul.... So long as the millions live in hunger and ignorance, I hold every man a traitor who, having been educated at their expense, pays not the least heed to them.... We are poor, my brothers we are nobodies, but such have always been the instruments of the Most High.
Never did he forget, in the midst of the comforts and luxuries of America, even when he was borne on the wings of triumph from one city to another, the cause of the Indian masses, whose miseries he had witnessed while wandering as an unknown monk from the Himalayas to Cape Comorin. The prosperity of the new continent only stirred up in his soul deeper commiseration for his own people. He saw with his own eyes what human efforts, intelligence, and earnestness could accomplish to banish from society poverty, superstition, squalor, disease, and other handicaps of human well-being. On August 20, 1893, he wrote to instil courage into the depressed hearts of his devotees in India:
Gird up your loins, my boys! I am called by the Lord for this.... The hope lies in you — in the meek, the lowly, but the faithful. Feel for the miserable and look up for help — it shall come. I have travelled twelve years with this load in my heart and this idea in my head. I have gone from door to door of the so-called 'rich and great.' With a bleeding heart I have crossed half the world to this strange land, seeking help. The Lord is great. I know He will help me. I may perish of cold and hunger in this land, but I bequeath to you young men this sympathy, this struggle for the poor, the ignorant, the oppressed.... Go down on your faces before Him and make a great sacrifice, the sacrifice of the whole life for them, for whom He comes from time to time, whom He loves above all — the poor, the lowly, the oppressed. Vow, then, to devote your whole lives to the cause of these three hundred millions, going down and down every day. Glory unto the Lord! We will succeed. Hundreds will fall in the struggle — hundreds will be ready to take it up. Faith — sympathy, fiery faith and fiery sympathy! Life is nothing, death is nothing — hunger nothing, cold nothing. Glory unto the Lord! March on, the Lord is our General. Do not look back to see who falls — forward — onward!
Swami Vivekananda was thoroughly convinced by his intimate knowledge of the Indian people that the life-current of the nation, far from being extinct, was only submerged under the dead weight of ignorance and poverty. India still produced great saints whose message of the Spirit was sorely needed by the Western world. But the precious jewels of spirituality discovered by them were hidden, in the absence of a jewel-box, in a heap of filth. The West had created the jewel-box, in the form of a healthy society, but it did not have the jewels. Further, it took him no long time to understand that a materialistic culture contained within it the seeds of its own destruction. Again and again he warned the West of its impending danger. The bright glow on the Western horizon might not be the harbinger of a new dawn; it might very well be the red flames of a huge funeral pyre. The Western world was caught in the maze of its incessant activity — interminable movement without any goal. The hankering for material comforts, without a higher spiritual goal and a feeling of universal sympathy, might flare up among the nations of the West into jealousy and hatred, which in the end would bring about their own destruction.
Swami Vivekananda was a lover of humanity. Man is the highest manifestation of God, and this God was being crucified in different ways in the East and the West. Thus he had a double mission to perform in America. He wanted to obtain from the Americans money, scientific knowledge, and technical help for the regeneration of the Indian masses, and, in turn, to give to the Americans the knowledge of the Eternal Spirit to endow their material progress with significance. No false pride could prevent him from learning from America the many features of her social superiority; he also exhorted the Americans not to allow racial arrogance to prevent them from accepting the gift of spirituality from India. Through this policy of acceptance and mutual respect he dreamt of creating a healthy human society for the ultimate welfare of man's body and soul.
The year following the Parliament of Religions the Swami devoted to addressing meetings in the vast area spreading from the Mississippi to the Atlantic. In Detroit he spent six weeks, first as a guest of Mrs. John Bagley, widow of the former Governor of Michigan, and then of Thomas W. Palmer, President of the World's Fair Commission, formerly a United States Senator and American Minister to Spain. Mrs. Bagley spoke of the Swami's presence at her house as a 'continual benediction.' It was in Detroit that Miss Greenstidel first heard him speak. She later became, under the name of Sister Christine, one of the most devoted disciples of the Swami and a collaborator of Sister Nivedita in her work in Calcutta for the educational advancement of Indian women.
After Detroit, he divided his time between Chicago, New York, and Boston, and during the summer of 1894 addressed, by invitation, several meetings of the 'Humane Conference' held at Greenacre, Massachusetts. Christian Scientists, spiritualists, faith-healers, and groups representing similar views participated in the Conference.
The Swami in the course of a letter to the Hale sisters of Chicago, wrote on July 31, 1894, with his usual humour about the people who attended the meetings:
They have a lively time and sometimes all of them wear what you call your scientific dress the whole day. They have lectures almost every day. One Mr. Colville from Boston is here. He speaks every day, it is said, under spirit control. The editor of the Universal Truth from the top floor of Jimmy Mills has settled herself down here. She is conducting religious services and holding classes to heal all manner of diseases, and very soon I expect them to be giving eyes to the blind, etc., etc. After all, it is a queer gathering. They do not care much about social laws and are quite free and happy....
There is a Mr. Wood of Boston here, who is one of the great lights of your sect. But he objects to belonging to the sect of Mrs. Whirlpool.* So he calls himself a mental healer of metaphysical, chemico, physical-religioso, what-not, etc.
Yesterday there was a tremendous cyclone which gave a good 'treatment' to the tents. The big tent under which they held the lectures developed so much spirituality under the treatment that it entirely disappeared from mortal gaze, and about two hundred chairs were dancing about the grounds under spiritual ecstasy. Mrs. Figs of Mills Company gives a class every morning, and Mrs. Mills is jumping all about the place. They are all in high spirits. I am especially glad for Cora, for she suffered a good deal last winter and a little hilarity would do her good. You would be astounded with the liberty they enjoy in the camps, but they are very good and pure people — a little erratic, that is all.
Regarding his own work at Greenacre, the Swami wrote in the same letter:
The other night the camp people all went to sleep under a pine tree under which I sit every morning a la India and talk to them. Of course I went with them and we had a nice night under the stars, sleeping on the lap of Mother Earth, and I enjoyed every bit of it. I cannot describe to you that night's glories — after the year of brutal life that I have led, to sleep on the ground, to mediate under the tree in the forest! The inn people are more or less well-to-do, and the camp people are healthy, young, sincere, and holy men and women. I teach them all Sivoham, Sivoham—'I am Siva, I am Siva' — and they all repeat it, innocent and pure as they are, and brave beyond all bounds, and I am so happy and glorified.
Thank God for making me poor! Thank God for making these children in the tents poor! The dudes and dudines are in the hotel, but iron-bound nerves, souls of triple steel, and spirits of fire are in the camp. If you had seen them yesterday, when the rain was falling in torrents and the cyclone was overturning everything — hanging on to their tent-strings to keep them from being blown off, and standing on the majesty of their souls, these brave ones — it would have done your hearts good. I would go a hundred miles to see the like of them. Lord bless them!...
Never be anxious for me for a moment. I will be taken care of, and if not, I shall know my time has come — and pass out.... Now good dreams, good thoughts for you. You are good and noble. Instead of materializing the spirit, i.e. dragging the spiritual to the material plane as these fellers do, convert matter into spirit — catch a glimpse at least, every day, of that world of infinite beauty and peace and purity, the spiritual, and try to live in it day and night. Seek not, touch not with your toes, anything which is uncanny. Let your souls ascend day and night like an unbroken string unto the feet of the Beloved, whose throne is in your own heart, and let the rest take care of themselves, i.e. the body and everything else. Life is an evanescent, floating dream; youth and beauty fade. Say day and night: 'Thou art my father, my mother, my husband, my love, my Lord, my God — I want nothing but Thee, nothing but Thee, nothing but Thee. Thou in me, I in Thee — I am Thee, Thou art me.' Wealth goes, beauty vanishes, life flies, powers fly — but the Lord abideth for ever, love abideth for ever. If there is glory in keeping the machine in good trim, it is more glorious to withhold the soul from suffering with the body. That is the only demonstration of your being 'not matter' — by letting matter alone.
Stick to God. Who cares what comes, in the body or anywhere? Through the terrors of evil, say, 'My God, my Love!' Through the pangs of death, say, 'My God, my Love!' Through all the evils under the sun, say: 'My God, my Love! Thou art here, I see Thee. Thou art with me, I feel Thee. I am Thine, take me. I am not the world's but Thine — leave Thou not me.' Do not go for glass beads, leaving the mine of diamonds. This life is a great chance. What! Seekest thou the pleasures of this world? He is the fountain of all bliss. Seek the highest, aim for the highest, and you shall reach the highest.
At Greenacre the Swami became a friend of Dr. Lewis G. Janes, Director of the School of Comparative Religions organized by the Greenacre Conference, and President of the Brooklyn Ethical Association. The following autumn he lectured in Baltimore and Washington.
During the Swami's visit in New York he was the guest of friends, mostly rich ladies of the metropolitan city. He had not yet started any serious work there. Soon he began to feel a sort of restraint put upon his movements. Very few of his wealthy friends understood the true import of his message; they were interested in him as a novelty from India. Also to them he was the man of the hour. They wanted him to mix with only the exclusive society of 'the right people.' He chafed under their domination and one day cried: 'Siva! Siva! Has it ever come to pass that a great work has been grown by the rich? It is brain and heart that create, and not purse.' He wanted to break away from their power and devote himself to the training of some serious students in the spiritual life. He was fed up with public lectures; now he became eager to mould silently the characters of individuals. He could no longer bear the yoke of money and all the botheration that came in its train. He would live simply and give freely, like the holy men of India. Soon an opportunity presented itself.
Dr. Lewis Janes invited the Swami to give a series of lectures on the Hindu religion before the Brooklyn Ethical Association. On the evening of December 31, 1894, he gave his first lecture, and according to the report of the Brooklyn Standard, the enthusiastic audience, consisting of doctors and lawyers and judges and teachers, remained spellbound by his eloquent defence of the religion of India. They all acknowledged that Vivekananda was even greater than his fame. At the end of the meeting they made an insistent demand for regular classes in Brooklyn, to which the Swami agreed. A series of class meetings was held and several public lectures were given at the Pouch Mansion, where the Ethical Association held its meetings. These lectures constituted the beginning of the permanent work in America which the Swami secretly desired.
Soon after, several poor but earnest students rented for the Swami some unfurnished rooms in a poor section of New York City. He lived in one of them. An ordinary room on the second floor of the lodging-house was used for the lectures and classes. The Swami when conducting the meetings sat on the floor, while the ever more numerous auditors seated themselves as best they could, utilizing the marble-topped dresser, the arms of the sofa, and even the corner wash-stand. The door was left open and the overflow filled the hall and sat on the stairs. The Swami, like a typical religious teacher in India, felt himself in his own element. The students, forgetting all the inconveniences, hung upon every word uttered from the teacher's deep personal experiences or his wide range of knowledge.
The lectures, given every morning and several evenings a week, were free. The rent was paid by the voluntary subscriptions of the students, and the deficit was met by the Swami himself, through the money he earned by giving secular lectures on India. Soon the meeting-place had to be removed downstairs to occupy an entire parlour floor.
He began to instruct several chosen disciples in jnana-yoga in order to clarify their intellects regarding the subtle truths of Vedanta, and also in raja-yoga to teach them the science of self-control, concentration, and meditation. He was immensely happy with the result of his concentrated work. He enjoined upon these students to follow strict disciplines regarding food, choosing only the simplest. The necessity of chastity was emphasized, and they were warned against psychic and occult power. At the same time he broadened their intellectual horizon through the teachings of Vedantic universality. Daily he meditated with the serious students. Often he would lose all bodily consciousness and, like Sri Ramakrishna, had to be brought back to the knowledge of the world through the repetition of certain holy words that he had taught his disciples.
It was sometime about June 1895 when Swami Vivekananda finished writing his famous book Raja-Yoga, which attracted the attention of the Harvard philosopher William James and was later to rouse the enthusiasm of Tolstoy. The book is a translation of Patanjali's Yoga aphorisms, the Swami adding his own explanations; the introductory chapters written by him are especially illuminating. Patanjali expounded, through these aphorisms, the philosophy of Yoga, the main purpose of which is to show the way of the soul's attaining freedom from the bondage of matter. Various methods of concentrations are discussed. The book well served two purposes. First, the Swami demonstrated that religious experiences could stand on the same footing as scientific truths, being based on experimentation, observation, and verification. Therefore genuine spiritual experiences must not be dogmatically discarded as lacking rational evidence. Secondly, the Swami explained lucidly various disciplines of concentration, with the warning, however, that they should not be pursued without the help of a qualified teacher.
Miss S. Ellen Waldo of Brooklyn, a disciple of the Swami, was his amanuensis. She thus described the manner in which he dictated the book:
'In delivering his commentaries on the aphorisms, he would leave me waiting while he entered into deep states of meditation or self-contemplation, to emerge therefrom with some luminous interpretation. I had always to keep the pen dipped in the ink. He might be absorbed for long periods of time, and then suddenly his silence would be broken by some eager expression or some long, deliberate teaching.'
By the middle of the year 1895 the Swami was completely exhausted. The numerous classes and lectures, the private instruction, the increasing correspondence, and the writing of Raja-Yoga had tired him both physically and mentally. It was a herculean task to spread the message of Hinduism in an alien land and at the same time to mould the lives of individuals according to the highest ideal of renunciation. Besides, there were annoyances from zealous but well-meaning friends, especially women. Some suggested that he should take elocution lessons, some urged him to dress fashionably in order to influence society people, other admonished him against mixing with all sorts of people. At time he would be indignant and say: 'Why should I be bound down with all this nonsense? I am a monk who has realized the vanity of all earthly nonsense! I have no time to give my manners a finish. I cannot find time enough to give my message. I will give it after my own fashion. Shall I be dragged down into the narrow limits of your conventional life? Never!' Again, he wrote to a devotee: 'I long, oh, I long for my rags, my shaven head, my sleep under the trees, and my food from begging.'
The Swami needed rest from his strenuous work, and accepted the invitation of his devoted friend Francis H. Leggett to come to his summer camp at Percy, New Hampshire, and rest in the silence of the pine woods. In the meantime Miss Elizabeth Dutcher, one of his students in New York, cordially asked the Swami to take a vacation in her summer cottage at Thousand Island Park on the St. Lawrence River. The Swami gratefully accepted both invitations.
About his life at the camp, he wrote to a friend on June 7, 1895: 'It gives me a new lease of life to be here. I go into the forest alone and read my Gita and am quite happy.' After a short visit at Percy, he arrived in June at Thousand Island Park, where he spent seven weeks. This proved to be a momentous period in his life in the Western world.
When the students who had been attending Swami Vivekananda's classes in New York heard of Miss Dutcher's proposal, they were immensely pleased, because they did not want any interruption of their lessons. The Swami, too, after two years' extensive work in America, had become eager to mould the spiritual life of individual students and to train a group that would carry on his work in America in the future. He wrote to one of his friends that he intended to manufacture 'a few yogis' from the materials of the classes. He wanted only those to follow him to Thousand Island Park who were completely earnest in their practice of spiritual disciplines, and he said that he would gladly recognize these as his disciples.
By a singular coincidence just twelve disciples were taught by him at the summer retreat, though all were not there the full seven weeks; ten was the largest number present at any one time. Two, Mme. Marie Louise and Mr. Leon Landsberg, were initiated at Thousand Island Park into the monastic life. The former, French by birth but a naturalized American, a materialist and socialist, a fearless, progressive woman worker known to the press and platform, was given the name Abhayananda. The latter, a Russian Jew and member of the staff of a prominent New York newspaper, became known as Kripananda. Both took the vows of poverty and chastity.
In many respects the sojourn in Miss Dutcher's cottage was ideal for the Swami's purpose. Here, to this intimate group, he revealed brilliant flashes of illumination, lofty flights of eloquence, and outpourings of the most profound wisdom. The whole experience was reminiscent of the Dakshineswar days when the Swami, as the young Narendra, had been initiated into the mysteries of the spiritual life at the feet of his Master Ramakrishna.
Thousand Island Park, near the western tip of Wellesley Island, the second largest of the seventeen hundred islands in the St. Lawrence River, has for its setting one of the scenic show-places of America. A prosperous village during the last part of the nineteenth century, it was, at the time of the Swami's visit, a stronghold of orthodox Methodist Christianity. The local tabernacle, where celebrated preachers were invited to conduct the divine service on Sunday mornings, attracted people from the neighbouring islands. Since secular activities were not allowed on the Sabbath, the visitors would arrive at Thousand Island Park the previous day and spend the night camping out. No such profanities as public drinking, gambling, or dancing were allowed in the summer resort — a rule that is still enforced half a century later. Only people of serious mind went there for their vacation.
Miss Dutcher's cottage* was ideally located on a hill, which on the north and west sloped down towards the river. It commanded a grand view of many distant islands, the town of Clayton on the American mainland and the Canadian shores to the north. At night the houses and hotels were brightly illuminated by Chinese lanterns.
Miss Dutcher, an artist, had built her cottage literally 'on a rock,' with huge boulders lying all around. It was surrounded by rock-gardens with bright-coloured flowers. At that time the tress at the base of the hill had not grown high; people from the village often visited the upstairs porch to survey the magnificent sweep of the river.
After inviting the Swami, Miss Dutcher, added a new wing to the cottage for his accommodation. This wing, three storeys high, stood on a steep slope of rock, like a great lantern-tower with windows on three sides. The room at the top was set apart exclusively for the Swami's use; the lowest room was occupied by a student; the room between, with large windows, and several doors opening on the main part of the house, was used as the Swami's classroom. Miss Dutcher thoughtfully added an outside stairway to the Swami's room so that he might go in and out without being noticed by the others.
On the roofed-in porch upstairs, extending along the west side of the cottage, the students met the Swami for his evening talks. There, at one end, close to the door of his room, he would take his seat and commune with his pupils both in silence and through the spoken word. In the evening the cottage was bathed in perfect stillness except for the murmur of insects and the whisper of the wind through the leaves. The house being situated, as it were, among the tree-tops, a breeze always relieved the summer heat. The centre of the village was only a five minutes' walk from the cottage, and yet, on account of the woods around it, not a single house could be seen. Many of the islands that dotted the river were visible in the distance and, especially in the evening, appeared like a picture. The glow of the sunset on the St. Lawrence was breathtaking in its beauty, and the moon at night was mirrored in the shining waters beneath.
In this ideal retreat, 'the world forgetting, by the world forgot,' the devoted students spent seven weeks with their beloved teacher, listening to his words of wisdom and receiving his silent benediction. Immediately after the evening meal they would assemble on the upstairs porch. Soon the Swami would come from his room and take his seat. Two hours and often much longer would be spent together. One night, when the moon was almost full, he talked to them until it set below the western horizon, both the teacher and the students being unaware of the passage of time. During these seven weeks the Swami's whole heart was in his work and he taught like one inspired.
Miss Dutcher, his hostess, was a conscientious little woman and a staunch Methodist. When the Swami arrived at the house, he saw on the walls of his living quarters scrolls bearing the words 'Welcome to Vivekananda' painted in bold letters. But as the teaching began, Miss Dutcher often felt distressed by the Swami's revolutionary ideas. All her ideals, her values of life, her concepts of religion, were, it seemed to her, being destroyed. Sometimes she did not appear for two or three days. 'Don't you see?' the Swami said. 'This is not an ordinary illness. It is the reaction of the body against the chaos that is going on in her mind. She cannot bear it.'
The most violent attack came one day after a timid protest on her part against something he had told them in the class. 'The idea of duty is the midday sun of misery, scorching the very soul,' he had said. 'Is it not our duty — ' she had begun, but got no farther. For once the great free soul broke all bounds in his rebellion against the idea that anyone should dare bind with fetters the soul of man. Miss Dutcher was not seen for some days.
Referring to the students who had gathered around the Swami, a village shopkeeper said to a new arrival who inquired for the cottage, 'Yes, there are some queer people living up on the hill; among them there is a foreign-looking gentleman.' A young girl of sixteen, living with her family at the foot of the hill, one day expressed the desire to talk to the Swami. 'Don't go near him,' her mother said sternly. 'He is a heathen.' Mr. Tom Mitchell, a carpenter who helped to restore the cottage for the Ramakrishna-Vivekananda Centre in 1948, and had originally built the Swami's quarters in 1895, told the present writer that he had read the Swami's lectures in Chicago from the newspapers long before his arrival at the island.
The students wanted, at first, to live as a community without servants, each doing a share of the work. Nearly all of them, however, were unaccustomed to housework and found it uncongenial. The result was amusing; as time went on it threatened to become disastrous. When the tension became too great, the Swami would say with utmost sweetness, 'Today, I shall cook for you.' At this Landsberg would ejaculate, in an aside, 'Heaven save us!' By way of explanation he declared that in New York, whenever the Swami cooked, he, Landsberg, would tear his hair, because it meant that afterwards every dish in the house required washing. After a few days an outsider was engaged to help with the housework.
Swami Vivekananda started his class at Thousand Island Park on Wednesday, June 19. Not all the students had arrived. But his heart was set on his work; so he commenced at once with the three or four who were with him. After a short meditation, he opened with the Gospel according to Saint John, from the Bible, saying that since the students were all Christians, it was proper that he should begin with the Christian scriptures. As the classes went on, he taught from the Bhagavad Gita, the Upanishads, the Vedanta Sutras, the Bhakti Sutras of Narada, and other Hindu scriptures. He discussed Vedanta in its three aspects: the non-dualism of Sankara, the qualified non-dualism of Ramanuja, and the dualism of Madhva. Since the subtleties of Sankara appeared difficult to the students, Ramanuja remained the favourite among them. The Swami also spoke at length about Sri Ramakrishna, of his own daily life with the Master, and of his struggles with the tendency to unbelief and agnosticism. He told stories from the inexhaustible storehouse of Hindu mythology to illustrate his abstruse thoughts.
The ever recurring theme of his teaching was God-realization. He would always come back to the one, fundamental, vital point: 'Find God. Nothing else matters.' He emphasized morality as the basis of the spiritual life. Without truth, non-injury, continence, non-stealing, cleanliness, and austerity, he repeated, there could be no spirituality. The subject of continence always stirred him deeply. Walking up and down the room, getting more and more excited, he would stop before someone as if there were no one else present. 'Don't you see,' he would say eagerly, 'there is a reason why chastity is insisted on in all monastic orders? Spiritual giants are produced only where the vow of chastity is observed. Don't you see there must be a reason? There is a connexion between chastity and spirituality. The explanation is that through prayer and meditation the saints have transmuted the most vital force in the body into spiritual energy. In India this is well understood and yogis do it consciously. The force so transmuted is called ojas, and it is stored up in the brain. It has been lifted from the lowest centre to the highest. "And I, if I be lifted up, will draw all men unto me."' He would plead with the students as if to beg them to act upon this teaching as something most precious. Further, they could not be the disciples he required if they were not established in chastity. He demanded a conscious transmutation. 'The man who has no temper has nothing to control,' he said. 'I want a few, five or six, who are in the flower of their youth.'
He would frequently exhort the students to attain freedom. As the words came in torrents from the depths of his soul, the atmosphere would be charged with the yearning to break free from the bondage of the body, a degrading humiliation. As he touched upon 'this indecent clinging to life,' the students would feel as if the curtain that hid the region beyond life and death were lifted for them, and they would long for that glorious freedom. 'Azad! Azad! the Free! the Free!' he would cry, pacing back and forth like a caged lion; but for him the bars of the cage were not of iron, but of bamboo. 'Let us not be caught this time,' would be his refrain on other occasions.
Some of these precious talks were noted down by his disciple Miss S. Ellen Waldo and later published as Inspired Talks. Students of Swami Vivekananda will for ever remain indebted to her for faithfully preserving his immortal words, and the title of this book was well chosen, for they were indeed inspired. One day Miss Waldo was reading her notes to some tardy arrivals in the cottage while the Swami strode up and down the floor, apparently unconscious of what was going on. After the travellers had left the room, the Swami turned to Miss Waldo and said: 'How could you have caught my thought and words so perfectly? It was as if I heard myself speaking.'
During these seven weeks of teaching the Swami was most gentle and lovable. He taught his disciples as Sri Ramakrishna had taught him at Dakshineswar: the teaching was the outpouring of his own spirit in communion with himself. The Swami said later that he was at his best at Thousand Island Park. The ideas he cherished and expressed there grew, during the years that followed, into institutions, both in India and abroad.
The Swami's one consuming passion, during this time, was to show his students the way to freedom. 'Ah,' he said one day, with touching pathos, 'if I could only set you free with a touch!' Two students, Mrs. Funke and Miss Greenstidel, arrived at the Park one dark and rainy night. One of them said, 'We have come to you as we would go to Jesus if he were still on the earth and ask him to teach us.' The Swami looked at them kindly and gently said, 'If I only possessed the power of the Christ to set you free!' No wonder that Miss Waldo one day exclaimed, 'What have we ever done to deserve all this?' And so felt the others also.
One cannot but be amazed at the manifestation of Swami Vivekananda's spiritual power at Thousand Island Park. Outwardly he was a young man of thirty-two. All his disciples at the cottage, except one, were older than himself. Yet everyone looked upon him as a father or mother. He had attained an unbelievable maturity. Some marvelled at his purity, some at his power, some at his intellectuality, some at his serenity, which was like the depths of the ocean, unperturbed by the waves of applause or contumely. When had he acquired all these virtues which had made him at thirty, a teacher of men? From the foregoing pages the reader will have formed an idea of him as a stormy person, struggling, in early youth, against poverty and spiritual unbelief. Afterwards he is seen wandering from the Himalayas to Cape Comorin, raging against the grievances and sufferings of the Indian masses. During his first two years in America he had had to fight tooth and nail against malicious critics in order to establish his reputation as a religious teacher. When had he, then, tapped the secret spring of inner calmness and assurance without which a teacher cannot transmit spirituality to his disciples?
One must not forget that Vivekananda, as Ramakrishna has said, was not an ordinary man, but a nityasiddha, perfect even before birth, an Isvarakoti, or special messenger of God born on earth to fulfil a divine mission. The silent but powerful influence of the guru always guided his feet. The outer world saw only the struggles and restlessness of his wandering days, but not the inner transformation brought about through the practice of purity, detachment, self-control, and meditation. The veil of maya, without which no physical embodiment is possible, and which in him was very thin, was rent through the spiritual struggle of a few years. People were astonished to see his blossoming forth at Thousand Island Park.
At Dakshineswar, though Sri Ramakrishna had offered young Naren various supernatural powers of Yoga as a help for his future work, the disciple had refused to accept them, as being possible impediments to spiritual progress. But later these powers began to manifest themselves as the natural fruit of his spiritual realizations. Thus one sees him at Thousand Island Park reading the inmost soul of his followers before giving them initiation, and foretelling their future careers. He prophesied for Sister Christine extensive travels in Oriental countries and work in India. He explained that his method of foresight was simple, at least in the telling. He first thought of space — vast, blue, and extending everywhere. As he meditated on that space intently, pictures appeared, and he then gave interpretations of them which would indicate the future life of the person concerned.
Even before his arrival at Thousand Island Park the Swami had had other manifestations of such Yoga powers. For instance, while busy with his lecture tour, sometimes giving twelve or fourteen speeches a week, he would feel great physical and mental strain and often wonder what he would speak of the next day. Then he would hear, at dead of night, a voice shouting at him the very thoughts he was to present. Sometimes it would come from a long distance and then draw nearer and nearer, or again, it would be like someone delivering a lecture beside him as he lay listening in bed. At other times two voices would argue before him, discussing at great length ideas, some of which he had never before consciously heard or thought of, which he would find himself repeating the following day from the pulpit or the platform.
Sometimes people sleeping in the adjoining rooms would ask him in the morning: 'Swami, with whom were you talking last night? We heard you talking loudly and enthusiastically and we were wondering.' The Swami often explained these manifestations as the powers and potentialities of the soul generally called inspiration. He denied that they were miracles.
At that time he experienced the power of changing a person's life by a touch, or clearly seeing things happening at a great distance. But he seldom used these and the other powers he had acquired through Yoga. One day, much later, Swami Turiyananda entered Swami Vivekananda's room while the Swami was lying on his bed, and beheld, in place of his physical body, a mass of radiance. It is no wonder that today in America, half a century later, one meets men and women who saw or heard Swami Vivekananda perhaps once, and still remember him vividly.
But it must not be thought that the Swami did not show his lighter mood at Thousand Island Park. He unfailingly discovered the little idiosyncrasies of the students and raised gales of laughter at the dinner-table, with some quip or jest — but never in sarcasm or malice. Dr. Wright of Cambridge, a very cultured man, was one of the inmates of the Dutcher Cottage. He became so absorbed in the class talks that at the end of every discourse the tense professor would invariably ask the teacher: 'Well, Swami, it all amounts to this in the end, doesn't it? — I am Brahman, I am the Absolute.' The Swami would smile indulgently and answer gently, 'Yes, Dockie, you are Brahman, you are the Absolute, in the real essence of your being.' Later, when the learned doctor came to the table a trifle late, the Swami, with the utmost gravity but with a merry twinkle in his eyes, would say, 'Here comes Brahman' or 'Here is the Absolute.'
Sometimes he would say, 'Now I am going to cook for you, "brethren".' The food he cooked would be delicious, but too hot for Western tastes. The students, however, made up their minds to eat it even if it strangled them. After the meal was cooked, the Swami would stand in the door with a white napkin draped over his arm, in the fashion of the negro waiters in a dining-car, and intone in perfect imitation their call for dinner: 'Last call fo' the dining cah. Dinner served.' And the students would rock with laughter.
One day he was telling the disciples the story of Sita and of the pure womanhood of India. The question flashed in the mind of one of the women as to how some of the beautiful society queens would appear to him, especially those versed in the art of allurement. Even before the thought was expressed, the Swami said gravely, 'If the most beautiful woman in the world were to look at me in an immodest or unwomanly way, she would immediately turn into a hideous green frog, and one does not, of course, admire frogs.'
At last the day of the Swami's departure from Thousand Island Park arrived. It was Wednesday, August 7, 1895. In the morning he, Mrs. Funke, and Sister Christine went for a walk. They strolled about half a mile up the hill, where all was forest and solitude, and sat under a low-branched tree. The Swami suddenly said to them: 'Now we shall meditate. We shall be like Buddha under the Bo-tree.' He became still as a bronze statue. A thunderstorm came up and it poured; but the Swami did not notice anything. Mrs. Funke raised her umbrella and protected him as much as possible. When it was time to return, the Swami opened his eyes and said, 'I feel once more I am in Calcutta in the rains.' It is reported that one day, at Thousand Island Park he experienced nirvikalpa samadhi.
At nine o'clock in the evening the Swami boarded the steamer for Clayton, where he was to catch the train for New York. While taking leave of the Island he said, 'I bless these Thousand Islands.' As the steamer moved away, he boyishly and joyously waved his hat to the disciples still standing at the pier.
Some of his devotees thought that the Swami had planned at Thousand Island Park to start an organization. But they were mistaken. He wrote to a disciple:
We have no organization, nor want to build any. Each one is quite independent to teach, quite free to teach, whatever he or she likes. If you have the spirit within, you will never fail to attract others.... Individuality is my motto. I have no ambition beyond training individuals. I know very little; that little I teach without reserve; where I am ignorant I confess it.... I am a sannyasin. As such I hold myself as a servant, not as a master, in this world.
Vivekananda, the awakener of souls, was indeed too great to be crammed within the confines of a narrow organization. He had had a unique experience of inner freedom at Thousand Island Park, which he expressed eloquently in his poem 'The Song of the Sannyasin.' He wrote from there to a friend: 'I am free, my bonds are cut, what do I care whether this body goes or does not go? I have a truth to teach — I, the child of God. And He that gave me the truth will send me fellow workers from earth's bravest and best.'
A month after his return from Thousand Island Park, Swami Vivekananda sailed for Europe. Before we take up that important chapter of his life, however, it will be well to describe some of his interesting experiences in America, especially his meeting with noted personalities.
Robert Ingersoll, the famous orator and agnostic, and Swami Vivekananda had several conversations on religion and philosophy. Ingersoll, with a fatherly solicitude, asked the young enthusiast not to be too bold in the expression of his views, on account of people's intolerance of all alien religious ideas. 'Forty years ago,' he said, 'you would have been hanged if you had come to preach in this country, or you would have been burnt alive. You would have been stoned out of the villages if you had come even much later.' The Swami was surprised. But Ingersoll did not realize that the Indian monk, unlike him, respected all religions and prophets, and that he wanted to broaden the views of the Christians about Christ's teachings.
One day, in the course of a discussion, Ingersoll said to the Swami, 'I believe in making the most of this world, in squeezing the orange dry, because this world is all we are sure of.' He would have nothing to do with God, soul, or hereafter, which he considered as meaningless jargon. 'I know a better way to squeeze the orange of this world than you do,' the Swami replied, 'and I get more out of it. I know I cannot die, so I am not in a hurry. I know that there is no fear, so I enjoy the squeezing. I have no duty, no bondage of wife and children and property, so I can love all men and women. Everyone is God to me. Think of the joy of loving man as God! Squeeze your orange my way, and you will get every single drop!' Ingersoll, it is reported, asked the Swami not to be impatient with his views, adding that his own unrelenting fight against traditional religions had shaken men's faith in theological dogmas and creeds, and thus helped to pave the way for the Swami's success in America.
Nikola Tesla, the great scientist who specialized in the field of electricity, was much impressed to hear from the Swami his explanation of the Samkhya cosmogony and the theory of cycles given by the Hindus. He was particularly struck by the resemblance between the Samkhya theory of matter and energy and that of modern physics. The Swami also met Sir William Thomson (afterwards Lord Kelvin) and Professor Helmholtz, two leading representatives of Western science. Sarah Bernhardt, the famous French actress, had an interview with the Swami and greatly admired his teachings.
Madame Emma Calve, the well-known prima donna, described the Swami as one who 'truly walked with God.' She came to see him in a state of physical and mental depression. The Swami, who did not at that time know even her name, talked to her about her worries and various personal problems. It was clear that he was familiar with them, even though she had never revealed them to him or to anyone else. When Madame Calve expressed surprise, the Swami assured her that no one had talked to him about her. 'Do you think that is necessary?' he asked. 'I read you as I would an open book.' He gave her this parting advice: 'You must forget. Be gay and happy again. Do not dwell in silence upon your sorrows. Transmute your emotions into some form of eternal expression. Your spiritual health requires it. Your art demands it.'
Madame Calve later said: 'I left him, deeply impressed by his words and his personality. He seemed to have emptied my brain of all its feverish complexities and placed there instead his clean and calming thoughts. I became once again vivacious and cheerful, thanks to the effect of his powerful will. He used no hypnosis, no mesmerism — nothing of that sort at all. It was the strength of his character, the purity and intensity of his purpose, that carried conviction. It seemed to me, when I came to know him better, that he lulled one's chaotic thoughts into a state of peaceful acquiesences, so that one could give complete and undivided attention to his words.'
Like many people, Madame Calve could not accept the Vedantic doctrine of the individual soul's total absorption in the Godhead at the time of final liberation. 'I cannot bear the idea,' she said. 'I cling to my individuality — unimportant though it may be. I don't want to be absorbed into an eternal unity.' To this the Swami answered: 'One day a drop of water fell into the vast ocean. Finding itself there, it began to weep and complain, just as you are doing. The giant ocean laughed at the drop of water. "Why do you weep?" it asked. "I do not understand. When you join me, you join all your brothers and sisters, the other drops of water of which I am made. You become the ocean itself. If you wish to leave me you have only to rise up on a sunbeam into the clouds. From there you can descend again, little drop of water, a blessing and a benediction to the thirsty earth."'
Did not the Swami thus explain his own individuality? Before his present embodiment, he had remained absorbed in communion with the Absolute. Then he accepted the form of an individual to help humanity in its spiritual struggle. A giant soul like his is not content to remain eternally absorbed in the Absolute. Such also was the thought of Buddha.
In the company of great men and women, the Swami revealed his intellectual and spiritual power. But one sees his human side especially in his contact with humble people. In America he was often taken to be a negro. One day, as he alighted from a train in a town where he was to deliver a lecture, he was given a welcome by the reception committee. The most prominent townspeople were all there. A negro porter came up to him and said that he had heard how one of his own people had become great and asked the privilege of shaking hands with him. Warmly the Swami shook his hand, saying 'Thank you! Thank you, brother!' He never resented being mistaken for a negro. It happened many times, especially in the South, that he was refused admittance to a hotel, a barber shop, or a restaurant, because of his dark skin. When the Swami related these incidents to a Western disciple, he was promptly asked why he did not tell people that he was not a negro but a Hindu. 'What!' the Swami replied indignantly. 'Rise at the expense of another? I did not come to earth for that.'
Swami Vivekananda was proud of his race and his dark complexion. 'He was scornful,' wrote Sister Nivedita, 'in his repudiation of the pseudo-ethnology of privileged races. "If I am grateful to my white-skinned Aryan ancestors," he said, "I am far more so to my yellow-skinned Mongolian ancestors, and most of all