Contrasting his own nature with that of Narendra, the Master would speak to us from time to time, “The person who is in this (himself) has the nature of a woman manifested in him, while the person who is in Naren has in him the manifestation of the nature proper to a man.” It is difficult to ascertain what the Master exactly meant by these words. But we get a reasonable meaning when we study the paths along which they proceeded, the principal means which they adopted in their search for God, the ultimate Truth. For, the Master, it was observed, engaged himself in practising the various scriptural disciplines with full faith in them as soon as he was instructed by the Guru, while the behaviour of Narendra in such cases assumed quite a different nature. Here Narendra, first of all, applied his intellect to ascertaining whether there was any possibility of error in the words of the scriptures and of the teacher and began practising them only when he regarded them as standing the test of reason. Although possessed of a firm faith in the existence of God owing to past impressions, Narendra is seen to have in his mind throughout his life the idea that all men, without exception, are under the influence of various errors and superstitions; and that there is no reason why one should accept indiscriminately any word of any human being. It is superfluous to add that to keep thus under control faith and devotion, irrespective of their origin and consequences, with the help of reason and intellect, and then to act in that light in the spiritual as well as in other realms is regarded by all in the modern age as natural and proper to a man.
Environment plays a great part in influencing and moulding human life at all times and in all places. It is, therefore, not at all surprising that its power and influence is seen in Narendra’s life. Even before going to the Master, Narendra, by the exercise of his uncommon intellect, became well versed in English literature, European and Indian histories and Western logic and was thoroughly imbued with Western ideas, whose radical principle of research and free thinking entered into his very marrow as early as then. It was therefore natural that he should doubt and, in many cases consider to be untrue, the words of the scriptures and shrink from accepting any particular man as the Guru in any sense except that he was an experienced teacher.
3. Society and his father’s life contributed to that education of his
The ideals of life of Narendra’s guardians and the condition of the then Calcutta society contributed not a little to that attitude of his. ‘His grand-father had a great faith in the Hindu scriptures all his life and he became a monk; but Narendra’s father lost that faith in consequence of his Western education and free thinking. The poems of Hafiz, the Persian poet, and the words of Jesus recorded in the Bible, were regarded by him as the highest limit of spiritual-ideas. It is needless to say that he had to have recourse to these books to enjoy the bliss of spiritual thinking because he could not read the Gita and other Hindu Sastras on account of his ignorance of the Sanskrit language. When one day he saw Narendra studying religion, he presented a copy of the Bible to him and said, “If there be anything called religion, it is in this.” Although he thus praised the Bible and the poems of Hafiz, his life was not spiritually moulded by the ideas contained in those books. He does not seem to have even felt the need for spirituality; but he derived a sort of momentary pleasure in the company of those books. The ultimate aim of his life was to earn money, live a happy life himself and contribute to others’ happiness by helping them as far as possible. One can see from this and a study of his daily life what a lax faith he had in God, the Self, the next world, etc. Western materialism and the idea that this world was all in all produced in the minds of persons like Narendra’s father a terrible doubt about metaphysical entities and, in many cases, gave rise to atheism; they had proved beyond doubt, so they thought, that there was nothing to learn from our ancient Rishis and Sastras, which taught weakness and superstitions only. Consequently, devoid of the spiritual backbone and faith in religion, they cherished one set of ideas inwardly and showed a different set outwardly, thus becoming more and more selfish and hypocritical. The Brahmo Samaj, established by that great intellect Raja Rammohan Roy, tried for a short time to stem that countrywide tide of atheism and materialism; but under the high pressure of Western civilization, that organization too was split into two parties on account of internal quarrels, and lost its splendour at last, and there were then signs noticeable in persons belonging to those two parties that they allowed themselves to be carried along by the prevailing current.
Narendra became well acquainted with Western sciences and philosophy after his F.A. examination in 1881. He had already mastered the doctrines of Mill and other Western logicians; there arose now a great yearning in his heart to master Descarte’s doctrine centring round “I, the thinker”, (Cogito ergo sum), Hume and Bentham’s atheism, Spinoza’s pantheism, Darwin’s doctrine of evolution, Comte and Spencer’s positivism and agnosticism, and other Western philosophical doctrines, in order to ascertain what was indeed real. Hearing of the great fame of the German philosophers, he tried to get acquainted as far as possible with the doctrines of Kant, Fichte, Hegel, Schopenhauer and others. Again, in order to know how the nerves and the brain are formed and how they function, he went from time to time to the Calcutta Medical College with his friends and applied his mind to the study of physiology and listened to the lectures on the subject. Consequently, he had much knowledge of Western philosophy even before he passed the B.A. Degree Examination in 1884. But the current of unrest flowed all the more swiftly in his mind inasmuch as that knowledge proved clearly the utter inadequacy of the human mind and intellect to define their own scope and to reveal a glimpse of the truth existing beyond the limit, far less to give us a clue to the discovery of a sure means to the realization of God, that absolute truth, and thereby to the enjoyment of eternal peace.
Narendra clearly understood with the aid of Western science and philosophy that the reaction of the brain and the senseorgans to the external stimuli created every moment various changes in the human mind and thereby produced in it the knowledge of pain and pleasure. It was of these mental changes alone that man gained any direct experience with the help of time, space, etc., but the real nature of the external world and the things in it, which produced the aforesaid stimulation and changes in his mind, remained for ever unknown and unknowable to him This fact was equally applicable to the internal world and the real nature of man himself. There also it was seen that although some unknown entity produced in the mind the consciousness of “I” and various other ideas with the help of its own power, man could not detect and comprehend it inasmuch as that entity itself remained beyond time and space. Thus kept back by the impregnable wall of time and space, the human mind was absolutely helpless in whatever direction, inward or outward, it pursued the search after truth. Narendra knew that the instruments, called the five senses of knowledge and the mind and intellect with the help of which man had been attempting to unveil the mystery of the universe, could not succeed in revealing its ultimate cause; that the sense perceptions, on the basis of which man proceeded to build his arguments and draw conclusions, were themselves full of errors and mistakes. All the attempts of the Western savants to ascertain the existence of a self apart from the body had been doomed to miserable failure. The ultimate conclusions of Western philosophy regarding the spiritual truth did not, therefore, appear to be reasonable to Narendra. There also arose a serious doubt in his mind whether it was desirable, in imitation of the West, to found philosophy on the basis of accepting as true and natural, the sense perceptions of the ordinary people, who were ever attached to the enjoyments of sense pleasures; or whether it was meek and proper to base it on the uncommon realizations of great souls of ideal character like Buddha and Jesus, according to the practice of the East, in spite of the fact that their experiences ran counter to those of the ordinary man.
Although a greater part of the conclusions of Western philosophy regarding spirituality appeared to Narendra to be unreasonable, he greatly extolled Western discoveries in the material sciences and the Western method of analysis; and in his examination of the truths of psychology and spirituality, he always took the help of those discoveries and analyses. He always tried since then to analyse and understand the extraordinary realizations of the Master’s life with the help of these instruments, and those things alone which stood the rigour of these tests, he accepted as true and fearlessly followed in practice. Though a terrible restlessness for the realization of truth was gnawing at his heart, still it was against his nature to do anything unintelligently or to respect any one out of fear of him If atheism were the inevitable result of the exercise of discrimination to the utmost of his power, he was ever ready to accept that. He would not shrink from truth or from the endeavour to solve life’s mystery even at the cost of his life, not to speak of the enjoyment of pleasures in the world. Having, therefore, a steadfast eye to the pursuit of the ultimate truth he now engaged himself in pursuing Western education and accepting its sounder parts. He gave up the straight path of faith and devotion under its influence, as doubts oppressed and sometimes overwhelmed him But his extraordinary perseverance and intellectual powers prevailed finally and helped him to have the ultimate aim of his life fulfilled at last. But, people then happened to think that Narendra accepted indiscriminately all the opinions published in Western books. His partiality at the time for Western opinions became so well-known among his friends that when, one day, after having read the Gita he highly eulogized it, they were taken aback and told the Master of this. The Master, too, said, “I hope, he did not do so because some Western scholars had expressed that opinion.”
One thing, however, is to be carefully noted, that Narendra had met the Master and had had a few extraordinary spiritual experiences before he came into contact with the Western education which produced the great revolution in his ideas. We have already told the reader of those experiences. It is clear that they helped him very much in placing firm faith in the existence of God. Otherwise it is difficult to ascertain where and how far he would have been carried away by the Western ideas and doctrines which proved that God, the cause of the universe, was unknown and unknowable. Although they would not have altogether destroyed his faith in the existence of God, on account of his strong previous good impressions, there was every chance of its being terribly shaken by the impact. But that was not to be. For, was his life not protected by Providence to accomplish a special task in the world? The Guru, the knower of Brahman, in whom he found a refuge by the grace of God, said to him over and over again, “God always hears the plaintive prayer of man and He can be seen, heard and touched palpably, being more real than the fact of this conversation of ours. I stake my credit on this.” On another occasion, he said to him “If you cannot accept the form of God or the common well-known ideas about Him because they are the products of human thought, and at the same time have faith in the existence of a God, the controller of the universe, He will certainly bestow His grace on you if you offer such a plaintive prayer as this, ‘O God, I don’t know Thy nature; please manifest Thyself to me as Thou really art.’ It is Superfluous to say that these words of the Master reassured him immensely and made him apply his mind to Sadhana with greater zeal than ever.
8. Narendra’s Sadhana
Hamilton, the Western philosopher, has said at the end of his book on philosophy that the human intellect gives a mere indication of the existence of God, the Controller of this world, and there its function ends. It is not in its power to reveal the nature of God. So, here philosophy ends; and “where philosophy ends there religion begins”. Narendra liked these words of Hamilton very much. He quoted it to us many times in the course of conversation. Narendra, however, did not give up the study of philosophy, though he applied his mind to Sadhana. He practically spent his time in music, meditation and study.
9. He adopted a new method of meditation and spent whole nights in it
Narendra adopted a new method of practising meditation from that time on. We have already said that in our meditation on the Lord, with or without forms, we can but think of Him anthropomorphically. Before he realized this, Narendranath used to apply his mind during meditation to the thought of the formless Brahman with attributes as prescribed by the Brahmo Samaj. But coming to the conclusion that even this conception about the nature of God was anthropomorphic, he now gave up that kind of meditation also and prayed to the effect: “O God, make me fit to see Your real nature.” He then removed all kinds of thought from his mind and keeping it still and motionless like the flame of a lamp in a windless place, tried to remain in that state. As the result of doing so for a short time, Narendra’s mind, which had all along been restrained, used to merge in itself so deeply that even the consciousness of time and of his own body disappeared now and then. He sat for meditation in his room when all the household had gone to bed and spent whole nights that way on many occasions.
10. An extraordinary vision during that meditation; the vision of Buddha
“There flowed in my mind a current of serene bliss when I kept it still, devoid of all objects. I felt for a long time even after the end of the meditation, a sort of intoxication under its impulse. So, I did not feel inclined to leave the seat and get up immediately. One day, when I was siting in that condition at the end of the meditation, I saw the extraordinary figure of a monk appear suddenly, from where I did not know, and stand before me at a little distance filling the room with a divine effulgence. He was in ochre cloth with a Kamandalu in his hand. His face bore such a calm and serene expression of inwardness born of indifference to all things that I was amazed and felt much drawn towards him. He walked forward towards me with a slow step, with his eyes steadfastly fixed on me, as if he wanted to say something. But I was seized with fear and could not keep quiet. I got up from my seat, opened the door and walked out of the room with rapid step. The next moment I thought, ‘Why this foolish fear’? I made bold and went back into the room to hear the monk, who, alas, was no longer there. I waited long in vain and felt dejected, repenting that I had been stupid enough to fly away without listening to him. I have seen many monks, but never have I found such an extraordinary expression in any other face. That face has been indelibly imprinted in my heart. It may be a hallucination, but very often it comes to my mind that I had the good fortune of seeing Lord Buddha that day.”