He who crosses a chasm on a narrow plank, is liable at any moment to an abrupt accession of all his ordinary associations and sensations, with a sudden fall from his giddy height. Very like this, seem the stories that we come across in sacred literature, of man's occasional attainment of the mind-world that lies beyond our common experience.
Peter, walking on the sea, begins to sink, the moment he remembers where he is. A few weary men, sleeping on a mountain-side, wake to behold their Master transfigured before them. But again they descend into the world, and already the great vision has died away, and become an echoing memory alone. Seated in the fields, watching their flocks by night, and talking in hushed voices on high themes, the shepherds become aware of the presence of angels. The moments pass, and with them the exaltation of hour and place, and lo, the angels have all faded out of the sky! Their hearers are driven to the common-place expedient of a journey on foot into the neighbouring village, to see what great thing has come to pass.
In contrast to these, the Indian ideal is that man whose lower mind is so perfectly under his own control that he can at any moment plunge into the thought-ocean, and remain there at will; the man who can be swept along, on irresistible currents of absorption, without the least possibility of a sudden break and unexpected return to the life of the senses!
Undoubtedly this power comes nearer, with depth of education and intensity of experience. But the only thing that can make it a man's own, is a self-command so strict that he can, at will, transcend thought itself. To him who can so concentrate himself as to be able even to suppress it when he will, the mind becomes an obedient servant, a fleet steed, and the body, in its turn, the loyal subject of the mind. Short of such power, there is no perfect, no unwavering self-control.
How few must be the persons born to it, in any single generation! There is a luminousness, an assuredness, about the deeds and words of such, which cannot be mistaken. 'They speak as those having authority, and not as the scribes.'
We cannot question that Sri Ramakrishna recognised such a soul, "a Brahmajnani from his birth," in the lad Noren, when he first saw him; recognised too, like a skilled engineer measuring the force of a stream, the height to which his thought-transcendence had already mounted.
"Tell me, do you see a light when you are going to sleep?" asked the old man eagerly. "Doesn't everyone?" answered the boy, in wonder. In later life, he would often mention this question, and digress, to describe to us the light he saw. Sometimes it would come as a ball, which a boy was kicking towards him. It would draw near. He would become one with it, and all would be forgotten. Sometimes it was a blaze, into which he would enter. One wonders whether sleep, thus beginning, is slumber at all, in the ordinary sense.
At any rate, it is told, by the men who were young with Vivekananda, that when he would throw himself down to sleep, their Master, watching his breathing, would often tell the others that he was only apparently resting, and would explain to them what stage of meditation had now been reached.
On one such occasion, while Sri Ramakrishna lay ill in the house at Cossipur, Noren had seemed, to one who was about him, to have been sleeping for some hours, when suddenly, towards midnight, he cried out. "Where is my body?" His companion, now known as the old monk Gopal Dada, ran to his aid, and did all he could, by heavy massage, to restore the consciousness that had been lost, below the head.
When all was in vain, and the boy continued in great trouble and alarm, Gopal Dada ran to the Master himself, and told him of his disciple's condition. He smiled when he heard, and said ''Let him be! It will do him no harm to stay there for a while. He has teased me enough, to reach that state!"
Afterwards he told him and others, that for Noren the Nirvikalpa Samadhi was now over, and his part would henceforth lie in work. The Swami himself described the early stages of this experience, later, to his gurubhai, Saradananda, as an awareness of light, within the brain, which was so intense that he took it for granted that someone had placed a bright lamp close to him, behind his head. Then, we may understand, the moorings of sense-consciousness were cut, and he soared into those realms of which none speaks.
In order to concentrate the mind, it will be understood, it is first of all necessary that we should be able to forget the body. It is for this purpose that asceticism is practised, and austerities undertaken. Throughout his life, a period of strict tapasya was always a delight to the Swami, who was constantly returning upon this, in spite of the seeming fearlessness with which he took possession of the world. Like a practised rider, touching the reins, or a great musician, running his fingers over the keys, he loved to feel again the response of the body to the will, rejoiced to realise afresh, his own command of his instrument. "I see that I can do anything!" he said, when, at the end of his life, having undertaken to go through the hot season in Calcutta without swallowing water, — and being allowed to rinse out the mouth, — he found that the muscles of his throat closed, of their own accord, against the passage of a single drop, and he could not have drunk it, if he would. In his neighbourhood when he was keeping a fast-day, food always seemed to another unnecessary, and difficult to conceive.
I have heard of an occasion when he sat, seeming as if he scarcely heard, surrounded by persons who were quarrelling and disputing. Suddenly an empty tumbler in his hand was crushed into fragments, the only sign he ever gave, of the pain this discussion had caused him!
It is not easy to realise the severity of the practices on which such a power of self-control had been developed; the number of hours spent in worship and meditation; the fixity of the gaze; the long-sustained avoidance of food and sleep. With regard to this last, indeed, there was one time when he had spent twenty-five days, allowing himself only half-an-hour's sleep, out of every twenty-four hours. And from this half-hour, he awoke himself! Sleep never afterwards, probably, was a very insistent or enduring guest with him.
He had the 'Yogi's eyes' — as Devendra Nath Tagore had told him, in his childhood, when he climbed into his house-boat on the Ganges, to ask "Sir, have you seen God?" — the 'Yogi's eyes,' which are said never to shut completely, and to open wide, at the first ray of light.
In the west, those staying in the same house with him, would hear the chant of 'Para Brahman,' or something of the sort, as he went, in the small hours of the morning, to take his early plunge. He never appeared to be practising austerity, but his whole life was a concentration so profound that to anyone else, it would have been the most terrible asceticism.
The difficulty with which he stopped the momentum that would carry him into meditation, had been seen by his American friends, in the early days of his life, in that country of railroads and tramways and complicated engagement-lists. "When he sits down to meditate," one of his Indian hosts had said, "it is not ten minutes, before he becomes insensitive, though his body may be black with mosquitoes!" This was the habit he had to control. At first, his lapses into the depths of thought, when people were perhaps waiting for him at the other end of a journey, caused him much embarrassment. On one occasion, teaching a New York class to meditate, it was found at the end, that he could not be brought back to consciousness, and one by one, his students stole quietly away. But he was deeply mortified, when he knew what had happened, and never risked its repetition. Meditating in private, with one or two, he would give a word, by which he could be recalled.
Apart altogether, however, from meditation, he was constantly, always, losing himself in thought. In the midst of the chatter and fun of society, one would notice the eyes grow still, and the breath come at longer and longer intervals; the pause; and then the gradual return. His friends knew these things, and provided for them. If he walked into the house, to pay a call, and forgot to speak; or if he was found in a room, in silence, no one disturbed him; though he would sometimes rise and render assistance to the intruder, without breaking his silence. Thus his interests lay within, and not without.
To the scale and range of his thought, his conversation was of course our only clue. His talk was always of the impersonal. It was not always religious, as that word goes, any more than his own Master's had been. It was very often secular. But it was always vast. There was never in it anything mean or warped or petty. There was no limitation of sympathy anywhere. Even his criticism was felt merely as definition and analysis. It had no bitterness or resentment in it. "I can criticise even an avatar", he said of himself one day, "without the slightest diminution of my love for him! But I know quite well that most people are not so; and for them it is safest to protect their own bhakti!" No sentiment of dislike or contempt remained from his analysis, even in the mind of the listener.
This largeness and sweetness of outlook, was firmly based on his reverence for his own guru. "Mine is the devotion of the dog!" he exclaimed once. "I don't want to know why! I am contented simply to follow!" and Sri Ramakrishna, in his turn, had had a similar feeling for Tota Puri — that great master, who had left his own disciples, at Kaithal, near Umballa, one day, "to go into Lower Bengal, where I feel that a soul needs me." He had gone back to his people again, when his work was done at Dakshineswar, and his grave in the North-West is honoured to this day. But he whom he had initiated felt for him, ever after, a reverence so great that he would not even utter his name. "Nangta, the Naked One, said unto me —" was his customary way of referring to him. Perfect love for the world and perfect faith in man are only possible, to that heart which has once seen its ideal realised.
But power to transcend the consciousness of the body is not the only condition of a development like our Master's. It is the Hindu belief that for the evolution of supreme force, it is necessary first to evoke intense energy of emotion, and then to hold this in absolute restraint. This points to a cycle of experience beyond the imagination of most of us, yet an incident in the life of the disciple Noren, gives us a glimpse of it.
He was still young, when a sudden death brought about a crisis in the fortunes of his family. Day after day, as the eldest son, he was racked with anxiety on their behalf. The sufferings of those who were dear to him tore his very heartstrings, and the sudden reversal, from ease and prosperity, filled him with perplexity. He could hardly believe in the extent of their disaster.
At last, unable longer to bear the anguish, he fled to his Master, and overwhelmed him with reproaches. The old man listened patiently, and said, with a tender smile, "Go yonder, my lad, and pray, before the image of Mother. AND WHATEVER YOU ASK HER FOR, SHE WILL ASSUREDLY BESTOW."
Looked at even from the most ordinary point of view, there was nothing wild or extravagant in the promise thus made; for Sri Ramakrishna was surrounded by wealthy disciples, of the Marwarri caste, who would have thought no cost too great, to have redeemed his word. The boy, somewhat soothed by the quietness and assurance of the direction, left his presence and went to pray before the image. It was some time before he returned, and when he came, he had a dazed look, say those who were present, and seemed to speak with some difficulty.
"Well, did you pray?" asked Sri Ramakrishna.
"Oh yes!" answered his disciple.
"And what did you ask Mother to give you?" said the Master.
"The highest bhakti and Gnanam!" replied Noren,
"Go again," said Sri Ramakrishna, briefly, without further comment, and again he went.
But there was no change. Three times he was sent, to ask for what he would; and three times he came back, with the same reply. Once before the Mother, he had forgotten all else, and could not even remember the cause that had brought him there. Have any of us risen at times to the height where we lose the memory of self, in intensity of prayer for the beloved? If so, we have perhaps gained some measure of the infinitely greater remoteness of this experience, from our common world of relativity and difference.
The Swami's thought soared, as he talked. Is thought itself but one form of expression of the inner Self, the Adhi Sakti? And is the force spent in it to be reckoned as lost, from the point of view of the thinker's own good? First, a circle of phenomena; then a circle of thought; lastly, the Supreme! If so, surely there can be no greater unselfishness than the sharing of their mind-treasure by the great souls, the Maha-purushas. To enter into their dream, must in itself be redemption, for it is the receiving objectively, of a seed that cannot die, till it has become, subjectively, the Beatific Vision!
Ideals were the units of our Master's thought, but ideals made so intensely living that one never thought of them as abstractions. Men and nations alike, were interpreted by him through their ideals, their ethical up-reaching.
I have sometimes thought that two different grades of mind are distinguishable, according to their instinct for classification under two heads or three. The Swami's tendency was always to divide into three. Recognising the two extremes of a quality, he never failed to discriminate also that point of junction between them, where, being exactly balanced, both might be said to be non-existent. Is this a universal characteristic of genius, or is it a distinction of the Hindu mind?
One never knew what he might see in a thing, never quite knew what might appeal to him. He would often speak in answer to thought, or respond to a thought more easily and effectively than to words. It was only gradually, from a touch here, and a hint there, that one could gather the great pre-occupation, that all words and thoughts were designed to serve.
It was not till the end of our summer in Kashmir, that he told us how he was always conscious of the form of the Mother, as a bodily presence, visible amongst us. Again, in the last winter of his life, he told his disciple Swarupananda that for some months continuously, he had been conscious of two hands, holding his own in their grasp.
Going on a pilgrimage, one would catch him telling his beads. Seated with one's back to him in a carriage one would hear him repeating an invocation over and over. One knew the meaning of his early-morning chant, when, before sending a worker out to the battle, he said, "Ramakrishna Paramahamsa used to begin every day by walking about in his room for a couple of hours, saying 'Satchidananda!' or 'Sivoham!' or some other holy word." This hint, publicly given, was all.
Constant devotion, then, was the means by which he maintained his unbroken concentration. Concentration was the secret of those incessant flashes of revelation, which he was always giving. Like one who had plunged his cup into a deep well, and brought up from it water of a sparkling coldness, was his entrance into a conversation. It was the quality of his thought, quite as much as its beauty or its intensity, that told of the mountain-snows of spiritual vision, whence it was drawn.
Some measure of this concentration was afforded by the stories he would tell of his lecturing experiences. At night, in his own room, a voice, he said, would begin to shout at him the words he was to say on the morrow, and the next day he would find himself repeating, on the platform, the things he had heard it tell. Sometimes there would be two voices, arguing with each other. Again the voice would seem to come from a long distance, speaking to him down a great avenue. Then it might draw nearer and nearer, till it would become a shout. "Depend upon it," he would say. "Whatever in the past has been meant by inspiration, it must have been something like this!"
In all this, however, he saw no miracle. It was merely the automatic working of the mind, when that had become so saturated with certain principles of thought, as to require no guidance in their application. It was probably an extreme form of the experience to which Hindus refer, as the 'mind becoming the guru.' It also suggests that, almost perfectly balanced as the two highest senses were in him, the aural may have had a slight preponderance over the visual. He was, as one of his disciples once said of him, "a most faithful reporter of his own states of mind," and he was never in the slightest danger of attributing these voices to any but a subjective source.
Another experience of which I heard from him, suggesting the same automatic mentality, perhaps in less developed form, was that when any impure thought or image appeared before him, he was immediately conscious of what he called 'a blow' — a shattering, paralysing blow, — struck from within upon the mind itself, as if to say 'no! not this way!'
He was very quick to recognise in others those seemingly instinctive actions, that were really dictated by the higher wisdom of super-consciousness. The thing that was right, no one could tell why, while yet it would have seemed, judged by ordinary standards, to have been a mistake, — in such things he saw a higher impulsion. Not all ignorance was, in his eyes, equally dark.
His Master's prophecy that again he would eat his mango, of the Nirvikalpa Samadhi, when his work was done, was never forgotten, by the brethren of his youth. None at any time knew the moment when the work might be ended, and the mounting realisation some may have suspected. During the last year of his life, a group of his early comrades were one day talking over the old days, and the prophecy that when Noren should realise who and what he had already been, he would refuse to remain in the body, was mentioned. At this, one of them turned to him, half-laughing, "Do you know yet, who you were, Swamiji?" he said, "Yes, I know now," was the unexpected answer, awing them into earnestness and silence, and no one could venture at that time to question him further.
As the end came nearer, meditation and austerity took up more and more of life. Even those things that had interested him most, elicited now only a far away concern. And in the last hour, when the supreme realisation was reached, some ray of its vast super-conscious energy seemed to touch many of those who loved him, near and far.
One dreamt that Sri Ramakrishna had died again that night, and woke in the dawn to hear the messenger at his gate. Another, amongst the closest friends of his boyhood, had a vision of his coming in triumph and saying "Soshi! Soshi! I have spat out the body!" and still a third, drawn irresistibly in that evening hour, to the place of meditation, found the soul face to face with an infinite radiance, and fell prostrate before it, crying out 'Siva Guru!'