THE SWAMI IN LONDON, 1896
The Swami returned to London, in April of the year following, and taught continuously, at the house where he was living with his good friend, Mr. E.T. Sturdy, in S. George's Road, and again, after the summer holidays, in a large classroom near Victoria Street. During July, August, and September, he travelled in France, Germany and Switzerland, with his friends, Mr. and Mrs. Sevier, and Miss H. F. Muller. In December, he left for India, with some of his disciples, by way of Rome, and arrived at Colombo, in Ceylon, on January the 15th, 1897.
Many of the lectures which he gave during the year 1896, have since been published, and in them, all the world may read his message, and the interpretation by which he sought to make it clear. He had come to us as a missionary of the Hindu belief in the Immanent God, and he called upon us to realise the truth of his gospel for ourselves.
Neither then, nor at any after-time, did I ever hear him advocate to his audience any specialised form of religion. He would refer freely enough to the Indian sects, — or as I would like to call them, 'churches,' — by way of illustration of what he had to say.
But he never preached anything but that philosophy which, to Indian thinking, under-lies all creeds. He never quoted anything but the Vedas, the Upanishads, and the Bhagavad Gita. And he never, in public, mentioned his own Master, nor spoke in specific terms of any part of Hindu mythology.
He was deeply convinced of the need for Indian thought, in order to enable the religious consciousness of the West to welcome and assimilate the discoveries of modern science, and to enable it also to survive that destruction of local mythologies which is an inevitable result of all world-consolidations.
He felt that what was wanted was a formulation of faith which could hold its adherents fearless of truth. "The salvation of Europe depends on a rationalistic religion," he exclaims, in the course of one of his lectures; and again, many times repeated, "The materialist is right! There is but One1. Only he calls that One Matter, and I call it God!"
In another, and longer passage, he describes the growth of the religious idea, and the relation of its various forms to one another. "At first," he says, ''the goal is far off, outside Nature, and far beyond it, attracting us all towards it. This has to be brought near, yet without being degraded or degenerated, until, when it has come closer and closer, the God of Heaven becomes the God in Nature, till the God in Nature becomes the God who is Nature, and the God who is Nature, becomes the God within this temple of the body, and the God dwelling in the temple of the body becomes the temple itself, becomes the soul of man. Thus it reaches the last words it can teach. He whom the sages have sought in all these places, is in our own hearts. Thou art He, O Man! Thou art He!"
He always considered, for his own part, that his greatest intellectual achievement during this period had consisted in his lectures on Maya, and it is only by reading these carefully, that an idea can be formed of the difficulty of the task he undertook, in trying to render the conception in modern English. Throughout the chapters in question we feel that we are in presence of a struggle to express an idea which is clearly apprehended, in a language which is not a fit vehicle for it. The word is wrongly understood, says the Swami, to mean 'delusion'. Originally it meant something like 'magic,' as "Indra through his Maya assumed various forms." But this meaning was subsequently dropped, and the word went through many transformations.
A milestone in the series of conceptions that finally determined its meaning is found in the text, "Because we talk in vain, and because we are satisfied with the things of the senses, and because we are running after desires, therefore we, as it were, cover this reality with a mist." Finally the word is seen to have assumed its ultimate meaning in the quotation from the Svetasvatara Upanishad. "Know Nature to be Maya. And the mind, the ruler of this Maya, as the Lord Himself." "The Maya of the Vedanta," says the speaker, "in its latest development, is a simple statement of facts - what we are, and what we see around us."
But that these words are not intended as a definition will be seen by anyone who reads the whole of the lectures on Maya for himself. It is there evident that the word does not simply refer to the Universe as known through the senses, but also describes the tortuous, erroneous, and self-contradictory character of that knowledge. "This is a statement of fact, not a theory," says the Swami, "that this world is a Tantalus' hell, — that we do not know anything about this Universe, yet at the same time we cannot say that we do not know. To walk in the midst of a dream, half sleeping, half waking, passing all our lives in a haze, this is the fate of every one of us. This is the fate of all sense knowledge. This is the Universe".
We see here, as in many other of his interpretations, that an Indian word is incapable of exact rendering into English, and that the only way of arriving at an understanding of it is to try to catch the conception which the speaker is striving to express, rather than to fasten the attention on a sentence or two here or there. By Maya is thus meant that shimmering, elusive, half-real half-unreal complexity, in which there is no rest, no satisfaction, no ultimate certainty, of which we become aware through the senses, and through the mind as dependent on the senses. At the same time — "And That by which all this is pervaded, know That to be the Lord Himself!"
In these two conceptions, placed side by side, we have the whole theology of Hinduism, as presented by the Swami Vivekananda, in the West. All other teachings and ideas are subordinated to these two. Religion was a matter of the growth of the individual, “a question always of being and becoming."
But such growth must presuppose the two fundamental facts, and the gradual transference of the centre of gravity, as it were, out of the one into the other, — out of Maya into the Self. The condition of absorption in Maya was "bondage" in the Eastern sense. To have broken that bondage was "freedom" or Mukti, or even Nirvana. The path for the would-be breaker of bondage must always be by seeking for renunciation, not by seeking for enjoyment. In this matter, the Swami was, as he said himself, only echoing what had been the burden of all religions. For all religions, Indian and other, have called a halt in the quest for pleasure. All have sought to turn life into a battlefield rather than a ball-room. All have striven to make man strong for death rather than for life.
Where I think that the Swami perhaps differed somewhat from other teachers was in his acceptance of every kind of mastery as a form of renunciation. Towards the end of his life I told him that 'renunciation' was the only word I had ever heard from his lips. And yet in truth I think that 'conquer!' was much more characteristic of him. For he pointed out that it was by renunciation, that is to say, by sustained and determined effort, by absorption in hard problems through lonely hours, by choosing toil and refusing ease, that Stephenson, for instance, invented the steam-engine. He pointed out that the science of medicine represented as strong a concentration of man's mind upon healing as would be required for a cure by prayer or by thought. He made us feel that all study was an austerity directed to a given end of knowledge. And above all, he preached that character, and character alone, was the power that determined the permanence of a religious wave.
Resistance was to his mind the duty of the citizen, non-resistance of the monk. And this, because for all the supreme achievement, was strength. "Forgive," he said, "when you also can bring legions of angels to an easy victory." While victory was still doubtful, however, only a coward, to his thinking, would turn the other cheek.
One reads the same lesson in his Master's story of the boy who for twenty years worked to acquire the power to walk on water. "And so," said a saint, "you have given twenty years of effort to doing that for which others give the ferryman a penny!" The lad might have answered that no ferryman could give his passengers what he had acquired by twenty years of patient striving. But the fact remains that to these teachers, supremely sane, the world's art of navigation had its own full value and its proper place.
Years afterwards, in Paris, someone approached him with a question as to the general history of the development of Indian ideas on these subjects. "Did Buddha teach that the many was real and the ego unreal, while Orthodox Hinduism regards the One as the Real, and the many as unreal?" he was asked. "Yes," answered the Swami, "And what Ramakrishna Paramahamsa and I have added to this is, that the Many and the One are the same Reality, perceived by the same mind at different times and in different attitudes."
Gifted to an extraordinary degree with a living utterance of metaphysics, drawing always upon a classical literature of wonderful depth and profundity, he stood in our midst as, before all, the apostle of the inner life, the prophet of the subordination of the objective to the subjective. "Remember!" he said once to a disciple, "Remember! the message of India is always 'Not the soul for Nature, but Nature for the soul!’"
And this was indeed the organ-note, as it were, the deep fundamental vibration, that began gradually to make itself heard through all the intellectual interest of the things he discussed, and the point of view he revealed. Like the sound of the flute, heard far away on the banks of some river in the hour of dawn, and regarded as but one amongst many sweet songs of the world: and like the same strain when the listener has drawn nearer and nearer, and at last, with his whole mind on the music, has become himself the player — may have seemed to some who heard him long, the difference between the life of the soul in Western thinking and in Eastern.
And with this came the exaltation of renunciation. It was not, perhaps, that the word occurred in his teachings any oftener than it had done before. It was rather that the reality of that life, free, undimensioned, sovereign in its mastery, was making itself directly felt. A temptation that had to be fought against was the impulse to go away, and bind upon oneself intellectual shackles not to be borne, in order to be able to enter in its fullness upon the life of poverty and silence.
An occasion came, when this call was uttered with great force. Some dispute occurred in the course of a question-class. "What the world wants to-day", said the Swami, - the determination to “throw a bomb,” as he called it, evidently taking sudden possession of him, -"What the world wants to-day, is twenty men and women who can dare to stand in the street yonder, and say that they possess nothing but God. Who will go?" He had risen to his feet by this time, and stood looking round his audience as if begging some of them to join him, "Why should one fear?" And then, in tones of which, even now, I can hear again the thunderous conviction, "If this is true, what else could matter? If it is not true, what do our lives matter?'
"What the world wants is character," he says, in a letter written at this time to a member of his class. "The world is in need of those whose life is one burning love - self-less. That love will make every word tell like a thunder-bolt. Awake, awake, great souls! The world is burning in misery. Can you sleep?"
I remember how new to myself at that time was this Indian idea that it was character that made a truth tell, the love expressed that made aid successful, the degree of concentration behind a saying that gave it force and constituted its power. Thus the text 'Consider the lilies, how they grow,' holds us, said the Swami, not by the spell of its beauty, but by the depth of renunciation that speaks in it.
Was this true? I felt that the question might be tested by experience, and after some time I came to the conclusion that it was. A quiet word, from a mind that put thought behind language, carried immediate weight, when the same utterance from the careless, would pass by unheeded. I do not know a stronger instance of this fact than a certain saying that is recorded of the Caliph Ali. Many have heard, and none surely without emotion, the words of the Lion of Islam, “Thy place in life is seeking after thee. Therefore be thou at rest from seeking after it!” But never, until we relate them to the speaker, four times passed over in the succession to the Caliphate, never until we know how the man's whole life throbs through them, are we able to explain the extraordinary power of these simple sentences.
I found also that an utterance consciously directed to the mind, instead of merely to the hearing, of the listener, evoked more response than the opposite. And having begun to make these psychological discoveries, I was led gradually to the perception that if indeed one's reason could, as one had long thought, make no final line of demarcation as between mind and matter, yet at least that aspect of the One-substance which we called Matter was rather the result of that called Mind or Spirit, than the reverse. The body, not the will, must be regarded as a bye-product of the individuality. This in turn led to the conception of a consciousness held above the body, a life governing matter, and free of it, so that it might conceivably disrobe and find new garments, or cast off the form known to us, as that form itself casts off a wounded skin. Till at last I found my own mind echoing the Swami's great pronouncement on immortality, "The body comes and goes." But this ripening of thought came gradually and did not complete itself for many months.
In the meantime, as I look back upon that time, I feel that what we all really entered upon in the Swami's classes was not so much an intellectual exposition, as a life of new and lofty emotions, — or, as they would be called in India, 'realisations.'
We heard the exclamation, in describing the worship of God as a child, "do we want anything from Him?" We bowed to the teaching that "love is always a manifestation of bliss," and that any pang of pain or regret was therefore a mark of selfishness and physicality. We accepted the austere ruling that any, even the slightest, impulse of differentiation, as between ourselves and others was 'hatred,' and that only the opposite of this was 'love.' Many who have ceased to believe in the creed of their childhood have felt that at least the good of others was still an end in itself, and that the possibility of service remained, to give a motive to life. It is strange, now that ten years have passed, to remember the sense of surprise with which, holding this opinion, we listened to the decorous eastern teaching, that highest of all gifts was spirituality, a degree lower, intellectual knowledge, and that all kinds of physical and material help came last. All our welling pity for sickness and for poverty classified in this fashion! It has taken me years to find out, but I now know, that in train of the higher giving, the lower must needs follow.
Similarly, to our Western fanaticism about pure air and hygienic surroundings, as if these were marks of saintliness, was opposed the stern teaching of indifference to the world. Here indeed, we came up against a closed door, and had no key. When the Swami said, in bold consciousness of paradox, that the saints had lived on mountain-tops "to enjoy the scenery," and when he advised his hearers to keep flowers and incense in their worship-rooms, and to care much for the purity and cleansing of food and person, we did not understand enough to connect the two extremes. But in fact he was preaching our own doctrine of physical refinement, as it would be formulated in India. And is it not true that until we in the West have succeeded in cleansing the slums of our great cities, our fastidiousness is very like the selfworship of the privileged?
A like fate awaited our admiration for such saints as knew how to order their worldly affairs with conspicuous success and prudence. True spirituality was indifferent to, nay contemptuous and intolerant of, the things of this world. This message the Swami never mitigated. In giving it, he never faltered. The highest spirituality cannot tolerate the world1.
We understood clearly enough that these were the ideals of sainthood only. We were learning chapter after chapter of a great language which was to make it easy for us to hold communion with the ends of the earth. We gathered no confusion as to those questions which concern the life of citizenship and domestic virtue, and form what may be regarded as the kindergarten of the soul. The idea that one country might best advance itself by learning to appreciate those ideals of order and responsibility which formed the glory of another was in no wise discredited. At the same time we were given, as the eternal watchword of the Indian ideals, "Spirituality cannot tolerate the world2." Did we, in contradiction, point to monastic orders, well-governed, highly organised, devoted to the public good, and contrast our long roll of abbots, bishops, and saintly lady-abbesses, with a few ragged and God-intoxicated beggars of the East? Yet we had to admit that even in the West, when the flame of spirituality had blazed suddenly to its brightest, it had taken their form. For those who know the land of Meera Bae and Chaitanya, of Tukaram and Ramanuja, can hardly resist the impulse to clothe with the yellow garb the memory of S. Francis of Assissi also.
In one of the volumes of the English translation of the 'Jataka Birth-Tales', there occur over and over again the words “when a man has come to that place where he dreads heaven as much as hell" — and I do not know how the realisation that the Swami's presence brought could be better described. Most of those who listened to him in London, in the year 1896, caught some glimpse, by which they were led to understand a little of the meaning of the eastern longing to escape from incarnation.
But master of all these moods and dominating them, was one that had barely been hinted at, in the words "If this is true, what other thing could matter? If it is not true, what do our lives matter?"
For there was a power in this teacher to sum up all the truths he himself had come to teach, together with his own highest hope, and to treat the whole as a mean bribe, to be flung away fearlessly, if need were, for the good of others. Years after, this spoke more clearly in the indignant reply with which he turned on some remark of my own, "Of course I would commit a crime, and go to hell for ever, if by that I could really help a human being!" It was the same impulse that spoke also, in his constant repetition to some few of us, as if it had a special bearing on the present age, of the tale of that Bodhisattva, who had held himself back from Nirvana till the last grain of dust in the universe should have gone in before him to salvation.
Does it mean that the final mark of freedom lies in ceasing from the quest of freedom? I have found the same thing since, in many of the Indian stories; in Ramanuja, for instance, breaking his vow, and proclaiming the sacred mantram to all the pariahs; in Buddha, keeping no secret, but spending his whole life in work; in Shishupal, choosing to be the enemy of God, that he might the sooner return to him; and in innumerable legends of the saints fighting against the deities.
But the Swami was not always entirely impersonal. Once after a lecture he came up to a small group of us, and said, a propos of some subject that had been opened up, "I have a superstition, — it is nothing, you know, but a personal superstition! — that the same soul who came once as Buddha came afterwards as Christ." And then, lingering on the point of departure, he drifted into talk of his "old Master," of whom we then heard for the first time, and of the girl who, wedded and forgotten, gave her husband his freedom, with tears. His voice had sunk lower, as he talked, till the tones had become dream-like. But finally, almost in soliloquy, he shook off the mood that had stolen upon him, saying with a long breath, "Yes, yes! these things have been, and they will again be. Go in peace, my daughter, thy faith hath made thee whole!"
It was in the course of a conversation much more casual than this, that he turned to me and said, "I have plans for the women of my own country in which you, I think, could be of great help to me," and I knew that I had heard a call which would change my life. What these plans were, I did not know, and the effort of abandoning the accustomed perspective was for the moment so great that I did not care to ask.
But I had already gathered that there was much to learn, if one's conception of the world were to be made inclusive of the view-point of foreign peoples. — "And you have blasted other cities!" had once been the startling reply, when I had spoken of the necessity of making London fair. For to me the mystery and tragedy of London had long been the microcosm of the human problem, standing as the symbol of the whole world's call. "And you have blasted other cities, to make this city of yours beautiful!" I could elicit no more, but the words echoed in my ears for many days.
In my eyes, our city was not beautiful. My question had been misunderstood. But through this misunderstanding, I had discovered that there was another point of view. "The English are born on an island, and they are always trying to live on it," said the Master once to me, and certainly the remark seems true of myself, as I look back on this period of my life, and see how determinately insular even my ideals had hitherto been. I learnt no more of the Indian point of view, during my life in England.
The friend, who afterwards called me to her side in India, chose a certain evening in London, when both the Swami and myself were her guests for an hour, to tell him of my willingness to help his work. He was evidently surprised, but said quietly, "For my own part I will be incarnated two hundred times, if that is necessary, to do this work amongst my people, that I have undertaken."
And the words stand in my own mind beside those which he afterwards wrote to me on the eve of my departure, "I will standby you unto death, whether you work for India or not, whether you give up Vedanta, or remain in it. The tusks of the elephant come out, but they never go back. Even so are the words of a man."
But these references to the Swami's own people were merely personal, and as such were strictly subordinate. In his classes, in his teachings, his one longing seemed to be for the salvation of men from ignorance. Such love, such pity, those who heard him never saw elsewhere. To him, his disciples were his disciples. There was neither Indian nor European there.
And yet he was profoundly conscious of the historic significance of his own preaching. On the occasion of his last appearance in London, [at the Royal Society of Painters in Watercolours, on Sunday afternoon, December the 15th, 1896] he pointed out the fact that history repeats itself, and that Christianity had been rendered possible only by the Roman Peace. And it may well have been that the Buddha-like dignity and calm of bearing which so impressed us, were but the expression of his far outlook and serene conviction that there would yet be seen a great army of Indian preachers in the West, reaping the harvest that he had sown so well, and making ready in their turn new harvests, for the more distant reaping of the future.