IT was in the year 1897, the year of my graduation, that I had the rare privilege of seeing at Calcutta the world-famous Hindu monk, the epoch-making Swami Vivekananda, in the house of the late Babu Balaram Bose, a devout bhakta well known to the disciples of Ramakrishna Paramahamsa. I went to see him because I was profoundly interested in his message, though its significance was not yet quite clear to me. A few words may be necessary to explain my interest.
I was inquisitive from my boyhood and the question of religion had a strange fascination for my mind. Just as in these days the predominant interest of my countrymen is politics, so in my boyhood their predominant interest was religion. It was a time of great religious movements and controversies. There was a constant play of action and reaction. On the one hand, there was the rising tide of Brahmoism with which most enlightened men were in sympathy. On the other, there was the frantic effort of the so-called orthodoxy with its pseudo-scientific and fanciful interpretation of the religion of the Hindus. Then, again, there was Theosophy with its Mahatmas, occultism, and spirit-world to which many educated people were attracted because they did not like the Westernized outlook of the Brahmos, and further because they felt flattered by the uncritical eulogy of everything Hindu by Colonel Olcott of America and Mrs. Annie Besant of England. It must be said at the same time that not an inconsiderable section of university-bred young men were free-thinkers, rationalists or agnostics who swore by Mill, Comte, Spencer, Huxley, and Haeckel and thought that all religions were equally false. Such was my intellectual milieu as a boy and a youth. I listened to the discussion of my elders and sometimes took part in the discussions. Religion to me was not yet a craving of the soul. It was more or less a question of intellectual interest. Though born in an orthodox Hindu family, yet the influence that I felt most was that of the Brahmo Samaj and also that of a near relative who was an out and out agnostic. With the social programme of the Brahmos I had every sympathy, but their theology I could not accept. I was swaying between two forces — Brahmoism and agnosticism.It is in this state of mind that I finished my school education and entered college. It is in the first year class, if I remember right, that I first heard of Ramakrishna — yet I did not hear of him from any fellow-countryman of mine but from a foreigner — no less a personage than Professor Max Muller himself. I just happened to read two articles from his pen in The Nineteenth Century — one entitled Esoteric Buddhism, a scathing criticism of Madame Blavatsky and her theosophy and the other A Real Mahatman. This Real Mahatman was no other than our Bhagavan Ramakrishna. A new horizon opened before me. A new light flashed forth. And all this happened at a mofussil town.
About a year after this, I read in the papers all about the famous Parliament of Religions at Chicago and the resounding triumph of Swami Vivekananda there. Who was this Vivekananda? I came to know soon after that he was the chief disciple of Ramakrishna, the Real Mahatman of Professor Max Muller. I was eager to know all about the man and his message. Unfortunately I was not present at Calcutta at the time when the whole city turned out to receive him with the tremendous ovation that signalizes the return of a conquering hero. I read, however, glowing accounts of the event and saw that honour such as this had never fallen to the lot of any man on the Indian soil
From this time onward I read the reports of all the speeches he delivered at different places in India. I felt that it was the spirit of India herself that breathed through his utterances. Such force, such fire was beyond the utmost stretch of my imagination. Several speeches of Keshab Chandra Sen I had read before. I had great admiration for his style, eloquence, and religious fervour. But here was a new atmosphere altogether, a new accent, a new emphasis, a new outlook at once national and universal. Here was Hinduism in all its phases, but how different from the Hinduism of the hide-bound Sanatanists, pseudo-revivalists, the Scribes and Pharisees of India! I was under a spell. The two speeches that impressed me most were his Calcutta Town-hall speech and his Lahore address on Vedanta. When I read the Lahore address, I was a B.A. student at Calcutta.
I eagerly waited for an opportunity to see the man. The opportunity came, as I have said, in 1897. I went to see Swami Vivekananda in the Calcutta residence of the late Babu Balaram Bose in company with a class-fellow of mine, Babu Narendra Kumar Bose.
We entered a hall which was full to overflowing. The people assembled there were for the most part students of the Calcutta colleges. They were all seated cross-legged on the floor covered with duree and pharas (floor matting covered with cotton sheets) In the centre was the seat meant for Swamiji. I managed somehow to occupy a place in the hall, and we all eagerly waited for the arrival of Swamiji. Perfect silence prevailed. A few minutes passed and the Swami stepped in. His gait was leonine and the dignity of his bearing simply royal. His frame was athletic and robust. He had a gairic alkhalla (ochre cloak) on, his feet were bare and his head, chin and lips clean shaven — altogether a striking personality. He had the look of a man born to command. He was soon seated, and then he looked at us. His large eyes beamed with genius and spiritual fire. He spoke in Bengali interlarded with English. Words flowed from his lips, and we heard him with rapt attention. Each word of his was like a spark of fire. His manner was impassioned. It was clear to all that here was a man with a message. His awakening power was wonderful. We heard him and felt aroused. A new spirit was breathed into us. Here was a man of faith in an age of doubt, sincere to the backbone, a dynamo of supernal force. To have seen him was education. To have heard him was inspiration. It was the most memorable day in my life, and it is impossible for me ever to lose its recollection.
What did he tell us all? To be strong and self-confident, to renounce and serve. Strength was the burden of all that he said. He poured torrential scorn upon what he called out "negative education" and spoke enthusiastically on man-making. He gave a vivid picture of our country's degradation and the misery of the masses. How he felt for the poor, the downtrodden and the oppressed! If we had a millionth part of his feeling, the face of the country would change at once. He spoke of the greatness of Hinduism and proudly said. "It is my ambition to conquer the world by Hindu thought — to see Hindus everywhere from the North Pole to the South Pole." As he uttered these words I saw in him the very Napoleon of Religion. I saw the warrior's heart throbbing beneath the yellow robe of the sannyasin. Not a mild Hindu at all this Swami Vivekananda but the most aggressive Hindu I have ever seen in my life. He was made of the same stuff of which Alexander and Caesar were made — only his role was different.
Some of his words are still ringing in my ears and they are these: "You must have steel nerves and cast-iron muscles. A moment's vigorous life is better than years of jelly-fish existence. Cowards die many time before their death. An honest atheist is a thousand times better than a hypocritical theist. Don't be jealous, for the slaves are jealous. Virtue is heroism — from vir in Latin which means man and which again is the same word as vira in Sanskrit."
After about two hours the Swami left the hall and we dispersed in different directions. I returned to my lodgings but the words of the Swami filled the air. I could think of nothing but Swami Vivekananda. There stood his heroic figure which-ever way I turned.
I could not resist the temptation of seeing him again, and so on the next day I went once more to the house of the late Babu Balaram. On this day there was no great gathering. Swamiji was seated in the veranda on an asana surrounded by a group of his brother-disciples. The Brahma-Sutras with Shankara's commentary was being read out by one of them, and Swamiji passed explanatory remarks here and there. Today's atmosphere was different altogether. It was all very quiet. Soon after the reading was finished, one of the Swami's brother-disciples spoke of the spirit-world and read an extract from a theosophical book. Swamiji at once came down upon him and extinguished him completely. I saw that the Swami was a hater of spookism. He clearly said that all this was weakening and debilitating and had nothing to do with true religion. After this, many light topics were introduced, and then Swamiji laughed and joked like a child. Here was another mood. I said to myself: Is it the same Swami I saw yesterday — the thundering Swami in dead earnest?
It was about a year after this that I saw the Swami once more — and this time on the platform. Now I was face to face with Vivekananda the orator. The scene was the Star Theatre of Calcutta. The occasion was the introduction of Sister Nivedita to the Calcutta public. The hall was crammed to suffocation. On the dais were seated many distinguished persons. I remember only Sir Jagadish Bose and Sir Ananda Charlu among them. Swami Vivekananda was in his best form. He wore a gairic turban and a long-flowing robe which was also gairic in hue. He introduced Sister Nivedita in a neat little speech. The Sister addressed the meeting in a graceful style. Then rose Swami Vivekananda, and he spoke on his foreign policy. The speech is to be found in the Mayavati Memorial Edition of his Complete Works. He brought forward a scheme of his future missionary work in the West. The speech was full of fire. Such thrilling voice, rich intonation, variation of pitch. strong and sonorous accent with occasional explosion as of the bolt of heaven I have never heard in my life nor am I likely to hear again. Sometimes he paced to and fro on the platform as he spoke and folded his arms across his chest. Sometimes he faced the audience and waved his hand. His expressions flowed free and fast with the rush and impetuously of a mountain torrent. His words were like the roaring of a cataract. Well might The New York Herald say: "He is an orator by divine right." Altogether a more majestic, striking, and magnetic personality it is hard to conceive. We heard him spell bound. Each word was an arrow that went straight to the heart.
Such is my recollection of Swami Vivekananda. To fully understand his message I read subsequently all his speeches and writings and almost all about his Master. There is not a single problem of our individual, social, and political life, that he has not touched and illuminated. He has given a new impulse to the country. So far as I am concerned, he is growing more and more vivid to me with the lapse of years, and I see his stature dilated today "like Teneriffe or Atlas". His message is the message of freedom, strength, fearlessness, and self-confidence. It is the eternal truths of our religion that he has preached in a new way, in modem terms, and he has also shown how these truths are to be applied to the present conditions of India and the rest of the world. A more constructive thinker and inspiring teacher I have not seen in my life. I do not know a single self-sacrificing Indian worker of the present century who has not been influenced more or less by his thoughts, words, and example. More than anybody else he has made India respected abroad. Many a child of the West has found in his message the solace of his life and the solace of his death. It is true that at the present moment the predominant interest of our country has become political, but the better minds believe with Swami Vivekananda that spirituality must be the basis of all our activities. It is difficult to say what form our national reconstruction will exactly take, it is difficult to predict anything about the future of the world as a whole, but I sincerely believe that the ideas and ideals of Swami Vivekananda are destined to play a very important part in the history of the human race. May his influence grow from more to more!
(Prabuddha Bharata, February 1930)