REMINISCENCES OF SWAMI VIVEKANANDA
T. J. DESAI

ABOUT this time (1895) I had an invitation from Miss Muller to attend the two public lectures delivered by Swami Vivekananda. I heard the first lecture at St. James' Hall with Mrs. Ingall. That was the first time I saw the commanding figure of the great Swami. He looked more like an Indian Prince than a sadhu (holy man). He had a bhagva patka (ochre coloured turban) on his head. He electrified the audience by his grand and powerful oratory. The next day the report appeared in the papers that he was the next Indian after Keshab Chandra Sen, who had surprised the English audience by his magnificent oratory. He spoke on the Vedanta. His large eyes were rolling like anything, and there was such an animation about him that it passeth description. After the meeting was over, the Swami took off his turban and put on a huge and deep Kashmiri cap looking like a big Persian hat.

The next time I heard him was at the Balloon Society. He spoke there for some time but not with his former fire. A clergyman got up after the lecture and attacked the Swami, and said that it would have been better if the Swami had taken the trouble of writing out his lecture at home and of reading it there, etc. The Swami got up to reply, and he was now on his mettle. He made such a fiery speech that the clergyman was nowhere. He said that some people had crude notions that the Vedanta could be learnt in a few days. The Swami further said that he had to devote about twelve long years of his life to the study of the Vedanta. He replied to the objections of the clergyman categorically one by one, recited the sonorous Vedic hymn beginning with "Supurnam" (Taittiriya Aranyaka, III. xi.1.) and ended with a triumphant peroration that still rings in my ears.

In 1896 I became a member of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland. I came in contact with some of the best scholars of the day. Prof. Rhys Davids was the secretary of the Royal Asiatic Society. He was a reputed Sanskrit scholar. The times of the meetings were notified to the members beforehand. A paper on some subject of general interest was read, and then discussion followed. Refreshments were then served, and we had ample opportunities of exchanging our views in conversation, and of making friendship with some of the greatest literary lights of the day. The proceedings of the meetings were published in the quarterly Journal of the Society. Miss Duff and several ladies were also members of the Roval Asiatic Society and were generally found at the meetings. Miss Duff was a Sanskrit scholar and had translated into English the book called The Elements of Metaphysics by Prof. Deussen of Germany. It was quite a treat to talk with the "Blue Stockings", as highly educated ladies were nick-named in England by orthodox people. I spoke in some of the meetings of the Royal Asiatic Society.

Once I remember that a paper was read by Prof. Bain on the Upanishads. Swami Vivekananda and Mr. Ramesh Chandra Dutt. C.I.E., were also there. Sir Raymond West had taken the chair. After the paper was finished, I made a vigorous and spirited speech. I made some remarks there on "egoism" in general and love of "individuality" of Europeans, as hindrances in the way of realizing the Impersonal and Infinite Brahman. Prof. Rhys Davids was particularly tickled, and he made a violent speech. I got up again and quietly told him that I meant no offence; and that I had the greatest respect for the European intellect, but when they dabbled in the philosophy of the Upanishads and the Vedanta, they could be safely guided, in some respects, by the Hindus, as it was their forte Just as a common Arabian sailor-boy would know more about the Arabian Sea and would safely lead us to the desired place, rather than the greatest European sailor who was an utter stranger to the shoals and rocks in the Arabian Sea. The effervescence subsided, and we all had a hearty cup of tea together after the temporary storm. This was the first time I saw Mr. Dutt. He also spoke — but in a temperate persuasive manner.

Swami Vivekananda liked my speech very much, and he took me to his place, talking on various subjects on the way. Strange that the Swami had put on a top hat on that day. If I err not, it was on that day that he and some other Swami (Saradananda or Abhedananda) prepared khichudi, etc., at his place, and asked me to partake of the supper with them.

Swami Vivekananda delivered a series of lectures in different places in London on karma-yoga, jnana-yoga, bhakti- yoga, and raja-yoga, during this year (i.e. 1896). He had also been invited to speak al the Btavatsky Lodge. I attended a good many of them. The cream of the English society attended his lectures, and all were mad after him. The Swami used to take walks with me from the lecture-hall to his house, or from his house to some neighbouring places. I very often dined at his place of residence, at his own invitation, or that of my pupil — Miss Muller, and of Mr. Sturdy, who, I believe, paid for the household expenses after the Swami came to live in London from America. Mr. Sturdy was like a real yogi. Mr. Goodwin was another staunch adherent of the Swami, and he took down in shorthand the lectures of the Swami, which were afterwards published.

In July, 1896, a conference of the London Hindu Association was held at the Montague Mansions. The chair was taken by Swami Vivekananda. the Hon. President of the Association, Mr. Dadabhai Naoroji was also present. A lecture was delivered on the "Needs of India" by Mr. Ram Mohan Roy, a gentleman from Madras. I, being the Secretary of the Association, had to arrange for the meeting, refreshments, etc. Swami Vivekananda, as chairman of the conference, rose to speak, and he electrified the audience. Reporters of the press were also present. When he struck his hand on the table during his speech, my watch bounded from the table and fell down on the ground, and created a visible sensation. He had a commanding figure, and my landlady, who had come to the meetings with me, was greatly impressed with his speech and personality. While the Swami had captivated the British public by his oratory, it was placarded, as I was going home, that Prince Ranjit Singhji had saved the honour of England against the Australian team. He had scored 154 runs and was not out. The next day there was a big leading article in the London Times about the "Exploits of Indians in England". Mr. Chatterji had come first in the Indian Civil Service Examination, and Prince Ranjit Singhji had stood first in the cricket averages in that very year.

Later on in the year, when I was living with the Owens for the second time, Swami Vivekananda had come to my house with another Swami (Saradananda or Abhedananda), as he was invited to take his dinner with us. It seemed from his conversation that he did not object to meat-eating, although he and the other Swami took only the vegetarian dishes prepared for us. The Swami used to smoke cigars. The Owens were generally pleased by Swami Vivekananda's visit. They admired his personality and powers of conversation.

I came in close contact with the Swami during this year (i.e. 1896). Once he delivered a magnificent speech in a magnificent hall in the West End of London, wherein he narrated the story of a young sannyasin who accidentally happened to go to the palace of a Raja, holding a svayamvara1 for his daughter. The princess, instead of throwing the vara-mala, or the "garland of the choice of a bridegroom", round the neck of any of the princes present, took a fancy for the young sannyasin, and suddenly dropped it round his head. The sannyasin ran away, and she followed him wherever he went, but to no purpose, as he would not lay down his sannyasa and marry her. After the lecture was over, the Swami was surrounded by the best of the beauty of England, and they put questions after questions to him and asked for explanations. He anyhow managed to extricate himself from them; and when he was alone, he heaved a sigh of relief, and asked me to go with him to his house. On the way, in order to sound the mind of the Swami, I asked him whether it was not wrong on the pan of the you sannyasin to break the heart of that young princess by not marrying her, on which he indignantly cried out, "Why should he desecrate himself?"

On another occasion, when Swami Vivekananda and myself were alone in his house, I put to him several knotty questions on Vedanta, and he explained them to me. One of them was about the unity of the individual soul (i.e. jivatman) with the brahman or paramatman. As I had devoted much of my time to the study and realization of the nature of brahman, I was looking for an answer in speechless silence, and at the same time was trying mentally to indentify myself with the Universal Spirit. The Swami, on finding that at a particular moment at that time I was en rapport with brahman, simply cried out, tat-tvam-asi (Thou art That)! I wanted no further explanation. The Swami returned to India towards the end of this year (i.e. 1896).

I subsequently paid a visit to the learned Swami at his private residence. He kindly received me in a cordial manner. I had a talk with him on religious matters during which he repeated several shiokas (verses) from the Bhagavad-Gita:

(Even in this life they have conquered the round of birih and death, whose minds are firm-fixed on the sameness of everything, for God is pure, and the same to all, and therefore, such are said to be living in God. O Arjuna, you and I have run the cycle of birth and death many times, I know them all, but you are not conscious of them. Know them to be of asurika resolve who, senseless as they are, torture all the organs of the body and Me dwelling within the body. Cast off this mean faint-heanedness and arise, O scorcher of thine enemies.)

Thereupon. I naturally repeated within myself in an audible manner:

(Destroyed is my delusion, and I have gained my memory through thy grace. O Achyuta. I am firm; my doubts are gone. I shall do thy word. Gita, XVIII. 73).

He said that animsa paramo dharmah was a tenet of the Buddhists, and it had gone so far that it had enfeebled the people. He preached a bold and manly religion. He told me that when he had to speak before the Chicago Parliament of Religions for the first time, he fell a little nervous in the beginning, but the mahavakya (great Upanishadic saying), aham brahmasmi (I am Brahman) at once flashed through his brain, and such a tremendous power entered his frame that he outdid himself. He electrified the American audience by his subsequent speeches, and the fact, no doubt, is testified by the reports of the American papers.

He, therefore, advised all men not to belittle themselves, but to realize their brahman-hood, their Divinity.

(Vedanta Kesari, January 1932)

  1. ^Choosing one's husband by a princess from among the assembled dignitaries at her father's house.