Monday, December 10, 2012

Swami Vivekananda

The Great Sacrifice

I wanted to write an article in honor of Swami Vivekananda’s 150th birth anniversary, but I didn’t quite feel qualified.  I am not a scholar.  I have not researched Swamiji’s writings and life story in great detail.

And then I felt a nudge as it were.  Perhaps I should give it a try.  I may not have the authority of a scholar but I am a devotee of God.  Kindly take my words as an offering. They may not be perfect, but they come from my heart.  I take the liberty to quote Leonard Cohen’s famous song:

 Ring the bell that still can ring;  forget your perfect offering.  There is a crack, a crack in everything …. that’s how the light gets in!

 What strikes my mind when I think of Swamiji is how much he sacrificed for love.  He knowingly gave up the bliss of the Eternal to step into our world of Finites, our world of pleasure and pain.  Did he have a choice?  Could he have refused Sri Ramakrishna who asked him to come down to the world with him?
Though a great rishi immersed in deep meditation in the loftiest of realms, Swamiji could not resist the pull of Sri Ramakrishna’s divine love.  Consenting, he gave up the eternal bliss of Oneness for a human birth in our troublesome world to serve his beloved Master.  The scope of Swamiji’s sacrifice can probably be best understood by Sri Ramakrishna’s parable on four friends who scaled a wall and, finding utmost bliss on the other side, they never returned.   
Once four friends, in the course of a walk, saw a place enclosed by a wall.  The wall was very high.  They became eager to know what was inside.  One of them climbed to the top of the wall.  What he saw on looking inside made him speechless with wonder.  He only cried, ‘Ah! Ah!’ and dropped in.  He could not give any information about what he saw.  The others, too, climbed the wall, uttered the same cry, ‘Ah! Ah!’ and jumped in.  Now who could tell what was inside?”
~ Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna
We, who struggle in this world, have turned our backs to eternal bliss out of ignorance.  Swamiji knowingly left this bliss because of love.  We are bound by our own doings, by our ego, by our attachments and desires, but Swamiji had no such bondage.  The only power that could bind this great rishi was love.
Perhaps I should define what I mean by “love,” an abstract term used by people freely to describe feelings that span the spectrum from vile to sublime.  Using the word “love” in connection with Swamiji and Sri Ramakrishna, I mean the kind of love that is passionate but free of lust and greed like the love the Gopis had for Sri Krishna.  I humbly admit that I don’t comprehend the depth of such a love, and I am merely using this term for the sake of communication.
When the great rishi took birth as Naren in Kolkata, he took on a human body and a human mind like any other ordinary mortal.  But there always was a difference.  He was no ordinary mortal.  He always felt…

... A presence that disturbs me with the joy
Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused,
Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,
And the round ocean and the living air,
And the blue sky, and in the mind of man:
A motion and a spirit, that impels
All thinking things, all objects of all thought,
And rolls through all things….
~ Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey
by William Wordsworth

Life is difficult from the start for one who intensely loves God and has to grow up in a society of parents, family, teachers, neighbors and friends.   Little Naren enjoyed playing with friends but, at the same time, he must have felt alone in their company.  Who could understand his feelings?  As a young man, what agony Swamiji had to endure trying to find a reference point in the world around him that tallied with what he felt inside.
Swami Chetanananda in Vivekananda: East Meets West mentions Swamiji telling one of his English disciples how restless he was as a child.
In my childhood I used to observe an inexhaustible force arising in me, overflowing my body, as it were.  I used to become restless and could not keep quiet.  This was why I used to fidget all the time…. My insides would vibrate, as it were, and make me restless to do something.
Although life at home was good and he excelled in everything he undertook – be it studies at school, music, martial art, debates, philosophy, scriptures – Naren found no peace.  Nothing could calm the fire that burned in his heart.
Could a rishi descended from sublime realms ever feel content in the cage of a human body and mind?  He searched for God and, being a modern young man, he joined the Brahmo Samaj.  He asked respected elders, “Sir, have you seen God?” only to find them shake their heads.  No, they had not seen God.  They only talked about God and what He was like as if they knew.
One day, Naren’s professor, Principal W.W. Hastie, elaborated on the subject of trance.  He used a particular Wordsworth poem to demonstrate what he meant by trance. 
...but for the growing Youth
What soul was his, when, from the naked top
Of some bold headland, he beheld the sun
Rise up, and bathe the world in light! He looked--
Ocean and earth, the solid frame of earth
And ocean's liquid mass, in gladness lay
Beneath him:--Far and wide the clouds were touched,
And in their silent faces could he read
Unutterable love. Sound needed none,
Nor any voice of joy; his spirit drank
The spectacle: sensation, soul, and form,
All melted into him; they swallowed up
His animal being; in them did he live,
And by them did he live; they were his life.
In such access of mind, in such high hour
Of visitation from the living God,
Thought was not; in enjoyment it expired.
No thanks he breathed, he proffered no request;
Rapt into still communion that transcends
The imperfect offices of prayer and praise,
His mind was a thanksgiving to the power
That made him; it was blessedness and love!.....
                                                 The Excursion
by William Wordsworth
 “Such an experience is a result of purity of mind and concentration on a particular object,” said Principal Hastie, adding that he had only met one person who might have experienced such a blessed state of mind.  This person was Ramakrishna Paramahamsa of Dakshineswar.
Young Naren had found what he was so desperately searching for.  When he asked Sri Ramakrishna, “Sir, have you seen God?” Sri Ramakrishna answered without a moment’s hesitation.
“Yes, I have seen God,” said Sri Ramakrishna.  “I see Him as I see you here, only more clearly.  God can be seen.  One can talk to Him.”

Naren, at once, felt irresistibly drawn to Sri Ramakrishna, but he was English-educated and taught to be skeptical.  As a member of the Brahmo Samaj, he had to promise not to bow down to a deity with form.  Naren loved and respected Sri Ramakrishna but sometimes mocked his fervent devotion to Ma Kali.
Some years passed but, slowly under the influence of Sri Ramakrishna’s spiritual power, Naren’s doubts and skepticism melted.  Though he continued to rebel and argue some times, in the end, he had to surrender to the Divine Mother.
When Naren’s father died in 1886 and left the family at the brink of starvation, Naren begged Sri Ramakrishna to ask a boon of Ma Kali on behalf of his family.
 “My boy, I can’t make such demands,” said Sri Ramakrishna.  “Why don’t you go and ask the Mother yourself.” 

Desperate to save his family, Naren put aside Brahmo Samaj principles and bowed down low before Ma Kali.  He stood in the inner shrine of the Divine Mother, but he could not pray.  He saw the beautiful form of  Ma Bhavatarini Kali and was engulfed in a surging wave of love.  Naren forgot everything else.  Flushed, and intoxicated in a divine mood, Naren addressed Ma Kali with folded hands:  “Ma, give me discrimination, give me renunciation, grant me knowledge and devotion.  Ma, grant me that I may have uninterrupted vision of You!”
Naren failed to ask a boon for his family.  Sri Ramakrishna sent him back three times, but every time, Naren forgot the world when he saw the beautiful face of the Divine Mother.  He no longer saw a statue.  He saw Ma and felt overwhelmed.
Sri Ramakrishna was very happy that his Naren had finally accepted the Divine Mother and, full of compassion he blessed him, saying: “All right, your people at home will never be in want of plain food and clothing.”
What followed was a night of blissful adoration during which Sri Ramakrishna taught Naren a song glorifying the Divine Mother.  Naren was a superb musician and had a beautiful voice.
“Mother, Thou art our sole Redeemer,
Thou the support of the three gunas,
Higher than the most high.
Thou art compassionate, I know,
Who takest away our bitter grief.
Thou art in earth, in water Thou;
Thou liest at the root of all.
In me, in every creature,
Thou hast Thy home; though clothed with form,
Yet art Thou formless Reality.
Sandhya art Thou and Gayatri;
Thou dost sustain this universe.
Mother, the Help art Thou
Of those who have no help but Thee,
O Eternal Beloved of Shiva!”
                                                ~Sri Ramakrishna and His Divine Play
                                                  (tranlated by Swami Chetanananda)
Naren had a great capacity for embracing deep spiritual experiences.  Though the spiritual dose he had already received from his Master overwhelmed him, he still wanted more.  For days, he begged Sri Ramakrishna to give him the experience of nirvikalpa samadhi.  One day at the Cossipore garden house, Sri Ramakrishna granted his prayer.  Naren went deep into samadhi losing his body consciousness.  
Bathed in peace, he went to the Master, who said:  “Now the Mother has shown you everything.  But this revelation will remain under lock and key, and I shall keep the key.  When you have accomplished the Mother’s work, you will find the treasure again.”
                                            ~ Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna
 Naren, who became Swami Vivekananda after the passing of Sri Ramakrishna, dutifully carried this responsibility for the rest of his life.  He had a mission.  He had to perform work for the Divine Mother.  Swamiji taught and spoke like a jnani, but inside, his heart was full of bhakti -- contrary to Sri Ramakrishna, who exhibited so much bhakti outside but was a jnani inside. 
Swamiji began to wander all over India, travelling from the high Himalayas in the North to India’s southernmost tip.  He saw the greatness of India, but he also saw the problems.  His large, compassionate heart was painfully squeezed seeing the extreme poverty of India’s masses.  “An empty stomach is no good for religion,” he said.
What could he do to ease their suffering?
The Divine Mother’s answer came through the Raja of Ramnad in South India.  The Raja encouraged Swamiji to go to Chicago in 1893 to represent India at the Parliament of Religions.  If successful, Swamiji would not only enhance India’s prestige in the West but also create confidence among Indians.
Should he go to the West?  Was this the will of Ma?  Swamiji had to be sure.  He went to the Kanya Kumari temple, and after prostrating at the feet of Mother Kumari, he jumped into the ocean and swam to a rock about 500 meters away from the mainland.
This sounds romantic, but if you take a ferry from the mainland to the rock, you realize how dangerous it was to swim through such turbulent water full of gigantic waves and rip currents.  The fact that Swamiji took such a risk gives us a glimpse into Swamiji’s inner fire driving him mercilessly.  He agonized over decisions he made to be certain he was doing Mother’s work and not his own.
Meditating without food and water, Swamiji spent three nights on this rock during the Christmas week of 1892 (Vivekananda: East Meets West by Swami Chetanananda).  “If it is the Mother’s will that I go, then let me receive the money from the people,” said Swamiji.  “It is for the people of India that I am going to the West – for the people and the poor.”
Swamiji’s purpose for going to the West was to help the people of India, but as it turned out, the Divine Mother Kali of Dakshineswar, the Savior of the Universe, had larger plans for him.  Swamiji was a world teacher and came for all – the people of the East and the West.  Sri Ramakrishna wrote on a piece of paper, “Naren will teach men.”  Next, he drew a peacock, a symbol of attraction.  Swamiji was all that: handsome, charismatic and a convincing teacher.
He crossed the great ocean and reached America, yet getting to the Parliament of Religions in Chicago was not without its obstacles.  He arrived with just a small Indian trunk, too little money and Indian clothes not adequate for the cold in Chicago.  He also had no housing arrangements and no proper introduction as a delegate for the Parliament.
As many of us have experienced, trying to do work for Ma means walking on the edge at all times.  To quote one sadhu: “It’s no sit-down life!”  While Swamiji’s situation in Chicago appeared pretty hopeless, it was miraculously turned around by a series of events.  Ma makes everything favorable, but some times She waits until the very last moment to do so. 
Swamiji was able to join the delegates of the Parliament of Religions and was given very little time to address the distinguished assembly of people gathered in the large Hall of Columbus.  He did not need more time to succeed.
His first words “Sisters and Brothers of America,” drew a deafening applause from the audience comprised of about seven thousand people.  When Swamiji finished his talk, people climbed over benches for a chance to get near him.  The next day, newspapers called Swamiji the best and greatest figure in the Parliament of Religions.  Overnight, Swami Vivekananda had become famous in the West.
Countless invitations for speaking engagements followed.  The handsome, charismatic Swami mesmerized audiences, and droves of people followed him wherever he went.  An ordinary person would have been elated by such success.  I believe Swamiji, though most probably pleased, worried knowing that he had to pay a high price for his victory.
When Swamiji came to the West, he came to an alien land, the culture of India’s oppressors.  What went through his mind when he first put on pants and a top coat like an English man?  How much did he miss his gerrua sadhu garb and wooden sandals?  Out of love, he dressed in Western attire for the work Sri Ramakrishna had entrusted in him.
Wearing a particular garb is important.  When Jeanne d’Arc was asked why she wore men’s clothes and whether she would consider putting on a woman’s dress, she answered, “When God’s work is done, I’ll gladly put on a woman’s gown and even a wedding dress.”  Jeanne d’Arc led the French army to victory and paved the way to the coronation of Charles VII after voices from God told her to do so.  She became a national hero and was proclaimed a saint but never wore a wedding dress.  She was handed over to the English, put on a mock trial by the pro-English Bishop Beauvais, convicted and burned at the stake at the age of nineteen.
Had Swamiji arrived in the West voicing his beliefs one hundred years before, perhaps people would have burned him at the stake also.  Swamiji’s success aroused the jealousy of America’s right-wing religious zealots.  He was almost poisoned, he was shot at and treated roughly in different parts of the country.  Swamiji endured.  Putting praise in one pocket and blame in the other, he went his way without compromise.
He ate the food that was given to him.  Surely, it must have tasted bland to his tongue used to strong spices in Indian cooking.  Moreover, Westerners eat beef and pork – something even non-vegetarian Bengalis would shun.
Swamiji exhibited incredible broadmindedness and composure as he adjusted to the ways of the West.  While his heart was bleeding for the starving masses in India, he had to sit in the drawing rooms of intellectuals and the wealthy listening to well-meaning but most probably condescending talk.  He had to pay attention to rich-peoples’ problems and hear their outlook on the world.  Aside from opinionated Western men, he was surrounded by strong Western women used to mixing and conversing freely with men – something unheard of in traditional Bengali society.
Swamiji remarkably managed to keep interested ladies at arm’s length as he dealt with flamboyant opera singers and actresses, socialites and wealthy housewives.  To quote the words of one of Swamiji’s admirers, Mrs. S.K. Blodgett, “Well my lad, if you can resist that onslaught you are indeed a God!”
How did Swamiji resist Western temptations?
He could remain steadfast because his tremendous love was tied to Sri Ramakrishna in thought and deed.  Following Sri Ramakrishna who saw God in every being, Swamiji focused on the essence all people around the world have in common: the inherent divinity of mankind.  “My ideal, indeed, can be put into a few words,” said Swamiji.  “That is: To teach unto mankind their divinity and how to make It manifest in every movement of life.” (Vivekananda: East Meets West by Swami Chetanananda).
Swamiji taught the highest Vedanta in the West and started Vedanta centers with the help of dedicated admirers.  He lectured on Vedanta but followed the path of bhakti.  When he was asked to give a lecture on Sri Ramakrishna, he declined.  He could not expose his love.  That was too intimate a relationship, too close to his heart.  Perhaps, it also was not the right time.  While the intellectuals and well-educated people Swamiji dealt with eagerly sipped up the abstract teachings of Vedanta, they probably could not have related to the path of bhakti. 
In a way, I can’t help but believe that the people around Swamiji during this time were all bhaktas although they called themselves Vedantists.  They fell in love with Swamiji and his ideals.  They may have intellectually followed his words, but how could they possibly comprehend the lofty and deep teachings of Vedanta?
To illustrate this point, there is a great story in the Chandoghya Upanishad about the gods and demons wanting to know the Atman.  They had heard from Brahma that whoever knows the Atman has mastery over all the worlds and can fulfill every desire.  The gods huddled around their chief Indra and begged him to go to Brahma’s school and get initiated into the mystery of the Atman.  The asuras also were determined to know this Atman and sent their chief Virochana to get training in the wisdom of the Atman.  Both Indra and Virochana approached Brahma waiting for instructions.  They waited and waited  After thirty-two years Brahma said, “That Being which you see in your eye is the Atman.”  
Indra and Virochana looked at themselves in a pan of water and saw themselves reflected.  “This is the Atman,” said Brahma. 
Though a true statement, no doubt, the mystery behind the instruction was so deep that it was grossly misunderstood by both disciples.  Virochana went back to the demons and told them that he had understood the Atman.  “This body is the Atman,” said Virochana.  This is the doctrine of the crass materialist the demons learned from Virochana.
Indra, on the other hand, had doubts.  How could this body be the Atman?  He returned to Brahma and was asked to meditate for another thirty-two years.  Then Brahma told Indra, “That which you see in the state of dream is the Atman.”
Indra still had doubts.  Brahma told him to practice austerities for another thirty-two years.  Then Brahma said, “The deep-sleep state is the Atman.” Since Indra still did not accept that, Brahma asked him to practice for another five years.
The chief of gods had to practice austerities for 101 years before he got the knowledge of the Atman, yet people think they can understand Vedanta by listening to a few lectures and reading a few books.
Without rigorous practice, following the instructions of one’s guru and observing the yamas and niyamas, it is impossible to go so deep and so high into a state where one can touch the Atman.   What’s the use to say “I’m standing on the roof of a house” when I’m stuck standing on the ground floor?  Sadhana is the stairway to the top.  How can one ever get full satisfaction if one practices jnana, “I am the Atman,” without a humble heart filled with bhakti?
The West historically has taken concepts from the East, and to make these their own, has thrown them out of context.  If I say “yes” to Vedanta and “no” to Indian culture, I will lose vital context.  The setting for a diamond is almost as important as the diamond itself.  When Sri Ramakrishna practiced a new spiritual discipline or religion, he immersed himself in every aspect of the religion and culture.  When he practiced Islam, he dressed like a Muslim and ate food prepared in a Muslim fashion. 
Western mentality does not want to take time.  It’s an outgoing culture, fast-paced, result-oriented and lays importance on planning and organizing.   Traditional Indian culture, on the other hand, is slow-paced, follows ancient rules and customs and lays importance on religion and Sanatana Dharma, righteous living.   As a result the West, in general, suffers from spiritual poverty while India suffers from material poverty.
Swamiji clearly saw the strengths and shortcomings of both cultures.  He was hoping to take the best from the East and the best from the West and bring about a society of God-conscious people that will do well in the world as well as in spiritual matters.
People who attended Swamiji’s talks saw a handsome young man full of fun, a passionate speaker, a great hero, secure with the choices he made in his life.   He could do no wrong.  Those close to him knew that he agonized over every step and every decision he made.  When in doubt, Swamiji would pace up and down in his room some times all night long.  People heard him talking to someone they could not see.  Was he talking to the Master and waiting for instructions?
Swamiji had to fulfill the mission Sri Ramakrishna had entrusted in him, and he realized that he could not do it alone.  Travelling in the West, he saw how efficiently organizations worked, but he also saw the flip side of organization: politics, power struggles and commercialism. 
’To organize or not to organize,” Swamiji pondered.  If I organize, the spirit will diminish.  If I do not organize the message will not spread.”
The frequent torments within his mind, a strenuous lecture schedule and carrying the burden of starting Sri Ramakrishna’s organization, Swamiji’s health began to break down.  Nevertheless, Swamiji walked up to the Amarnath cave in Kashmir, undergoing severe tapasya such as bathing in ice-cold rivers and fasting before he entered the holy cave of Shiva.  Perhaps the pain in the world was getting too much for him.  Perhaps he went on pilgrimage to beg Lord Shiva to lift the burden off his shoulders.
According to his disciple Nivedita, he had a profound experience standing before the ice lingam.  It’s probably safe to infer that he realized who he was as he stood before the Lord.  Sri Ramakrishna predicted that once Naren knew who he was, he would give up his body.

Amarnath Shiva gave him a boon.  Shortly after he descended and came back to Srinagar, Swamiji left his companions and went by himself to the shrine of Kheer Bhavani.  Pleased by his fervent prayers and meditation, the goddess came alive for him, and Swamiji saw that her ancient temple had been desecrated by Muslim invaders. 
How could people have permitted such sacrilege without offering strenuous resistance?  If I had been here then, I would never have allowed such a thing.  I would have laid down my life to protect the Mother.”  Thereupon he heard the voice of the Goddess saying: “What if unbelievers should enter My temple and defile My image?  What is that to you?  Do you protect Me, or do I protect you? … If I so wish, I can have innumerable temples and monastic centres.  I can even this moment raise a seven-storied gold temple on this very spot.” … Referring to this experience after his return, he said to his disciples: “All my patriotism is gone.  Everything is gone.  Now it is only ‘Mother! Mother!                                 
 ~ Vivekananda: East Meets West
by Swami Chetanananda
With this experience, the Divine Mother had taken the burden off Swamiji’s shoulders.  It was the beginning of the end.
Swamiji travelled to the West for a second time in 1899.  He stopped over in England and then took a steamer to America.  Overall, it was a disappointing trip.  Disciples did not behave the way he had envisioned, he was criticized, and things did not turn out the way he had hoped.   He longed to be free.  He longed for silent peace.  He longed to be the wandering monk he once was, sitting in a kaupin under a tree, begging his food.  But he was famous now, and everybody wanted something and expected things from him – in India and in the West.  His health was bad and his thoughts were on death.
Prais’d be the fathomless universe,
For life and joy, and for objects and knowledge curious; 
And for love, sweet love—But praise! Praise!
For the sure-enwinding arms of cool-enfolding Death.
Dark Mother, always gliding near, with soft feet,
Have none chanted for thee a chant of fullest welcome?
Then I chant it for thee—I glorify thee above all; 
I bring thee a song that when thou must indeed come,
come unfalteringly. 
Approach, strong Deliveress!
When it is so—when thou hast taken them, I joyously sing the dead, 
Lost in the loving, floating ocean of thee,
Laved in the flood of thy bliss, O Death. 
           ~ When Lilacs Last in the Door-yard Bloom’d
by Walt Whitman
Sri Ramakrishna had unlocked the passageway to nirvikalpa samadhi.  “I shall never see forty,” predicted Swamiji when he was thirty-nine years old.  He chose to give up his body on the 4th of July 1902, the day Americans celebrate Independence.
Swamiji left a legacy of teachings and a road map for a new “man-making religion” which made him an icon worldwide and an Indian national hero.  He was a spiritual giant who taught in passionate language and deed.  No doubt, Swamiji gave a lot, but it is Sri Ramakrishna who we really need to thank.  Without Sri Ramakrishna, Swamiji would have remained a rishi seated in a lotus position fully absorbed in meditation.


If Swamiji were alive today, he surely would be pleased to see how the Ramakrishna Order he started had grown into a well-functioning huge organization.  He would be happy to see the Order’s well-run schools and mission work, but he would have to throw some of his famous verbal bombs at the Western-inspired materialism that has infiltrated India in recent years.
The British with all their might couldn’t change Indian culture, but Western materialism and gadgets created desires for instant gratification and comfort and that is changing India at a rapid pace.   Corrupt materialism is undermining the very foundation of Sanatana Dharma.  The elite rich are getting richer, and the poor masses are getting poorer.
If India, a mighty source of spirituality, looks to the West for its future, the future will, indeed, be grim – not just for India but also for the West.  Swamiji didn’t want to take the worst from the West.  He wanted to take the best from the West and the best from India and build a strong society.
India is rising quickly, but there is still a lot of work to be done.  There is hope.  Swamiji told one of his admirers, Mrs. Hansborough, in San Francisco:
             I may have to be born again because I have fallen in love with Man.


  1. Great thoughts you got there, believe I may possibly try just some of it throughout my daily life.

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  2. Usha - really enjoyed reading your article on Swami Vivekananda. Very informative and written by a "devotee"