Swami Vivekananda | 4. Wandering monk


4. A wandering monk

Soon a tendency to embrace a wandering life, according to the traditions of monks, was most irresistibly felt by most of these young monks.

Naren, in spite of his anxiety to maintain the ties of uniting the brotherhood, was himself tormented with the same desire to strike out into the unknown paths of the monks’ life and to lose himself in the silence of the wild, under the wide canopy of heavens.

Naren resisted the call to flight for two years, and apart from his short visits to some neighbouring places, he practically remained at Baranagore until 1888.

But he was determined to break away from the monastery to test his own strength, to gather experiences of a new life, to make himself absolutely fearless, and at the same time to force his brother-disciples to learn self-reliance and to stand alone.

He therefore suddenly left Calcutta in 1888 and went to Varanasi, Ayodhyā, Lucknow, Agra, Vrindāvan, Hathras, and the Himalayas.

At the railway station of Hathras he quite unintentionally made Sharat Chandra Gupta, the station-master, his disciple, who afterwards took the name of Sadānandā.

Sharat Chandra, without a moment’s hesitation, left his hearth and home and followed the Swami gladly in his itinerancy through the hills. For some time both were lost in the silence of the Himalayas and were almost dead to the outside world.

But physical hardship and severe spiritual austerities undermined their health, and both had to come back to the Baranagore monastery after gathering manifold experiences.

After a year the Swami again went out and visited, among other places, Ghazipur.

During his stay at Ghazipur, he met the illustrious saint Pavhari Baba who had attained to great spiritual heights through hard austerities and Yogic practices.

Despite the useful lessons which he was able to gather from his travels, his heart still panted for a life of absolute freedom from all external trammels.

He wanted to plunge into the depths of the  Himalayas to acquire through extreme forms of mental discipline a tremendous spiritual power which would enable him to carry on his Master’s mission without let or hindrance.

With this end in view he broke loose at the beginning of July 1890, this time for many years, from the Baranagore monastery.

Swami Akhandananda, one of his brother-disciples, who had just returned from his Tibetan travels with a fund of wonderful experiences of the life and manners of the people of the Himalayas, became his companion.

At Varanasi the Swami wrote to his friend, Pramadadas Mitra, a great Sanskrit scholar:

“I am going away; but I shall never come back until I can burst on society like a bomb, and make it follow me like a dog.”

From the moment he left Calcutta he was happy:

The solitude, the village air, the sight of new places, the meeting with new people and getting rid of old impressions and worry delighted him.

When they reached the Himalayas, the splendid scenery with its waterfalls, streams, wild forests, and its serenity and quietude and, above all, its invigorating atmosphere buoyed up the spirit of the Swami, and the occasional glimpses of the eternal snows filled his heart with unspeakable emotion and joy.

They wanted to go to Kedarnāth and Badarikāśrama, but they had to give up their idea of visiting those ancient places of pilgrimage as the road was closed by the Government on account of famine.

By February 1891, the Swami finally became a solitary monk and began his historic wandering of two years through India. He wandered, free from any plan, constantly with the thought of God in his mind.

The Swami, in the course of his pilgrimage around India, met with all sorts and conditions of men and found himself—

today a despised beggar sheltered by pariahs or a brother of the oppressed identifying himself in keen sympathy with their misery,

and tomorrow a guest of the princes, conversing on equal terms with Prime Ministers and Maharajas and probing the luxury of the great, and awakening care for the public weal in their torpid hearts.

First he visited Rajputana, the land of heroes, where he met some of the most enlightened princes of the day:

While at Alwar the Swami had a very interesting discussion with Prince Mangal Singh. The Maharaja asked the Swami:

“Well, I have no faith in idol worship. I cannot worship wood, earth, stone, or metal, like other people. Does this mean that I shall fare worse in the life hereafter?”

The eyes of the Swami alighted on a picture of the Maharaja which was hanging on the wall. At his express desire it was passed to him. Holding it in his hand, the Swami asked:

- “Whose picture is this?” 

The Dewan answered: “It is the likeness of our Maharaja.”

A moment later those present trembled with fear when they heard the Swami commanding the Dewan to spit on it.

The Dewan was thunderstruck, and the eyes of all glanced in terror and awe from the Prince to the monk, from the monk to the Prince. But all the while the Swami insisted: “Spit on it! I say, spit on it!”

And the Dewan in fear and bewilderment cried out: “What! Swamiji! What are you asking me to do? This is the likeness of our Maharaja. How can I do such a thing?”

“Be it so,” said the Swami, “but the Maharaja is not bodily present in this photograph. This is only a piece of paper:

It does not contain his bones and flesh and blood. It does not speak or behave or move in any way as does the Maharaja.

And yet all of you refuse to spit on it, because you see in this photo the shadow of the Maharaja’s form. Indeed, in spitting upon the photo, you feel that you insult your master, the Prince himself.”

Turning to the Maharaja, he continued:

“See, Your Highness, though this is not you in one sense, in another sense it is you. That was why your devoted servants were so perplexed when I asked them to spit upon it. It has a shadow of you; it brings you into their minds. One glance at it makes them see you in it!

Therefore they look upon it with as much respect as they do upon your own person.

Thus it is with the devotees who worship stone and metal images of gods and goddesses:

It is because an image brings to their minds their Ishta (chosen deity), or some special form and attribute of the Divinity, and helps them to concentrate, that the devotees worship God in an image. They do not worship the stone or the metal as such.

Everyone, O Maharaja, is worshipping the same one God who is the Supreme Spirit, the Soul of Pure Knowledge. And God appears to all according to their understanding and their representation of Him.”

The Maharaja who had been listening attentively all this time said with folded hands:

“Swamiji! I must admit that according to the light you have thrown upon image worship, I have never yet met anyone who had worshipped stone, or wood, or metal. Heretofore I did not understand its meaning. You have opened my eyes.”

This is but one of the numerous instances to show what illuminating discourses the Swami had, in the course of his tour, with men of learning and influence,

and how, with his characteristic frankness and boldness, he told all whatever he felt to be true and proper in the inmost core of his heart.

But occasions were when the Swami learnt lessons of the highest wisdom even from the lowliest and the lost. One instance would suffice:

Just before the Swami’s departure for the West, the Maharaja of Khetri, who had already become his initiated disciple, accompanied the Swami as far as Jaipur.

On this occasion the Maharaja was being entertained one evening with music by a nautch-girl. The Swami was in his own tent when the music commenced.

The Maharaja sent a message to the Swami asking him to come and join the party. The Swami sent word in return that as a Sannyāsin he could not comply with such a request.

The singer was deeply grieved when she heard this, and sang in reply, as it were, a song of the great Vaishnava saint, Surdas. Through the still evening air, to the accompaniment of music, the girl’s melodious voice ascended to the ears of the Swami—

“O Lord, look not upon my evil qualities! Thy name O Lord, is Same-sightedness. One piece of iron is in the image in the temple, And another is the knife in the hand of the butcher; But when they touch the philosophers’ stone, Both alike turn to gold.

So, O Lord, look not upon my evil qualities! One drop of water is in the sacred Yāmuṉa, And another is foul in the ditch by the roadside; But when they fall into the Ganga Both alike become holy. 

So, Lord, do not look upon my evil qualities! Thy name, O Lord, is Same-sightedness.”

The Swami was completely overwhelmed:

The woman and her meaningful song at once reminded him that the same Divinity dwells in the high and the low, the rich and the poor—in the entire creation.

The Swami could no longer resist the request, and took his seat in the hall of audience to meet the wishes of the Maharaja.

Speaking of this incident later, the Swami said:

“That incident removed the scales from my eyes. Seeing that all are indeed the manifestations of the One, I could no longer condemn anybody.”

The Swami’s itinerancy led him through almost all the historic places of Rajputana, Bombay State, and Southern India till at last he reached Kaṇyā Kumārī in all probability on 23 December 1892.

No doubt, every moment of these travels of his with an open mind for several years throughout the length and breadth of India—

from the dreamy poetic regions of the snow-capped Himalayas down to Kaṇyā Kumārī, the last promontory of the land where the mighty ocean spreads out into infinity—were eventful.

All this wandering had a great educational value for him, opening up, as it did, opportunities for original thought and observation, the most striking element in all of  which was his tireless search for unity in the world of Indian ideals.

Nevertheless, it was at Kaṇyā Kumārī that his pilgrimage throughout his motherland, and his days and months of thought on the problem of the Indian masses bore fruit:

Happy as a child is to be back with its mother, so was the Swami when he prostrated before the image of the Divine Mother in the seashore temple at Kaṇyā Kumārī.

After worshipping the Mother, he swam across some two furlongs of the shark- infested ocean and reached the farther of the two rocks that form the southernmost extremity of India.

Over the three days he sat there, he was in a long and deep meditation. The Swami himself has told of the thoughts that moved through his mind during that period:

He saw, as it were, the whole of India—her past, present, and future, her centuries of greatness and also her centuries of degradation.

He saw that it was not religion that was the cause of India’s downfall but, on the contrary, the fact that her true religion, the very life and breath of her individuality, was scarcely to be found, and he knew that her only hope was a renascence of the lost spiritual culture of the ancient rishis.

His mind encompassing both the roots and the ramifications of India’s problem, and his heart suffering for his country’s downtrodden, poverty-stricken masses, he ‘hit’, as he later wrote, ‘a plan’:

We are so many sannyasins wandering about and teaching the people metaphysics—it is all madness: Did not our Gurudeva use to say: “An empty stomach is no good for religion”?

That those poor people are leading the life of brutes is simply due to ignorance. We have for all ages been sucking their blood and trampling them under foot.

…Suppose some disinterested sannyasins, bent on doing good to others, go from village to village, disseminating education, and seeking in various ways to better the condition of all down to the Chāṇḍāla, through oral teaching, and by means of maps, cameras, globes, and other accessories—can’t that bring forth good in time?

All these plans I cannot write out in this short letter. The long and short of it is—if the mountain does not come to Mohammed, Mohammed must go to the mountain.

The poor are too poor to come to schools and they will gain nothing by reading poetry and all that sort of thing.

We as a nation have lost our individuality, and that is the cause of all mischief in India. We have to give back to the nation its lost individuality and raise the masses. The Hindu, the Mohammedan, the Christian, all have trampled them under foot.

Again, the force to raise them must come from inside, that is, from the orthodox Hindus. In every country the evils exist not with, but against religion. Religion therefore is not to blame, but men. 

To effect this, the first thing we need is men, and the next is funds.

And that is why, in the presence of the Maharaja of Mysore, the Swami burst forth into an eloquent description of what was prompting him to go the West:

He told the Maharaja that he intended to go to America to ask the West for the means to ameliorate the material condition of India and to take to it in exchange the gospel of Vedanta.

The Swami again spoke of the same mission when he met by chance two of his brother-disciples, Swamis Brahmānanda and Turiyananda, at the Abu Road train station. To them he said with a pathetic appeal:

“I have travelled all over India. But alas, it was agony to me, my brothers, to see with my own eyes the terrible poverty and misery of the masses, and I could not restrain my tears!

It is now my firm conviction that it is futile to preach religion amongst them without first trying to remove their poverty and their suffering. It is for this reason—to find more means for the salvation of the poor of India—that I am now going to America.”

Of this meeting with the Swami at the above station, Swami Turiyananda said later on:

“I vividly remember some remarks made by Swamiji at that time. The accents and deep pathos with which they were uttered still ring in my ears.

He said: Haribhai, I am still unable to understand anything of your so-called religion.

Then with an expression of deep sorrow in his countenance and an intense emotion shaking his body, he placed his hand on his heart and added:

“But my heart has expanded very much, and I have learnt to feel. Believe me, I feel intensely indeed!”

His voice was choked with feeling; he could say no more. For a time, profound silence reigned and tears rolled down his cheeks.”

In telling of this incident Swami Turiyananda was also overcome with deep emotion. With a heavy sigh he said:

“Can you imagine what passed through my mind on hearing the Swami speak thus? Are not these,” I thought, “the very words and feelings of Buddha?”

I could clearly perceive that the sufferings of humanity were pulsating in the heart of Swamiji—his heart was a huge cauldron in which the sufferings of mankind were being made into a healing balm.

Nobody could understand Vivekananda unless he saw at least a fraction of the volcanic feelings which were in him.”

The Swami next journeyed from Kaṇyā- Kumārī to Rāmeśvaram during the last days of 1892, and from there to Madras at the beginning of 1893.

From the day of his arrival there he was besieged with numerous visitors and he seemed to be on the road to public recognition.

It was in Madras that the message of the Master gained a ready acceptance, and a brilliant group of enthusiastic young men became his ardent adherents. It was here that his intention to attend the Parliament of Religions took a definite shape.

During the months of March and April, 1893, the disciples of the Swami took active steps to raise requisite funds for this purpose.

But before leaving for America, the Swami had to visit Khetri at the earnest importunities of the Maharaja, his disciple.

It was at the court of the Maharaja of Khetri that the Swami, at the Maharaja’s request, assumed the name of Vivekananda by which he was to be known in future.

He sailed from Bombay on May 31, 1893—a memorable day for India.