Have You seen God ?
Described as "the soul of puissance if ever there was one, a very lion among men" he who came to be known the world over as Swami Vivekananda lived for only 39 years. He was born on January 12, 1863, and named Narendra Nath. His father Vishwanath Datta, was a well-known Calcutta attorney, and his mother, Bhuvaneshwari, was known as a highly intelligent woman. Narendra Nath' s early years were spent in a home characterised by purity and truthfulness. In his boyhood Narendra showed remarkable capacities of intellect, powers of concentration and qualities of courage, self-confidence and resourcefulness. While still in his teens and studying in college, he was greatly influenced by science and logic. He was at that time sceptical, and yet he had a great yearning in his heart to touch something absolutely perfect.
This burning quest in the spirited and fearless young man drove Narendra to seek from those who claimed to be God-lovers and God-lovers the answer to one question: Have you seen God? No one gave him a satisfactory answer. Then one day some friends took the sceptical Narendra to the Kali Temple at Dakshineshwar, some miles from Calcutta, to see someone who was known to be a "Godman". The first meeting between Narendra Nath and Sri Ramakrishna was momentous. First, Narendra sang a few devotional songs and, as usual, poured his soul into them. Suddenly, Sri Ramakrishna took his hand and drew him into the adjacent room. When they were alone, the Master began to shed tears of joy and said, "Ah, you have come
so late! How unkind of you to keep me waiting so long! My ears are almost seared listening to the cheap talk of worldly people. Oh how I have been yearning to unburden my mind to one who will understand my thought! " Then with folded hands he went on: "Lord! I know you are the ancient sage Nara — the incarnation of Narayana — born on earth to remove the miseries of mankind. " Recalling this moment, Swami Vivekananda described his own reaction: "I was altogether taken aback by his conduct; 'Who is this man whom I have come to see? 'I thought, 'he must be stark mad!' "
Nevertheless, Sri Ramakrishna extracted from Narendra a promise to return to Dakshineshwar. Then they went back into the other room. It was at this point that Narendra Nath asked his question to the Master: "Sir, have you seen God? " The reply was immediate: "Yes, I have seen God. I see Him as I see you here, only much more clearly. God can be seen. One can talk to him. But who cares for God? People shed torrents of tears for their wives, children, wealth, and property, but who weeps for the vision of God? If one cries sincerely for God, one can surely see Him. " That answer impressed Narendra at once:
For the first time I found a man who dared to say that he had seen God, that religion was a reality to be felt, to be sensed in an infinitely more intense way than we can sense the world. As I heard these things from his lips, I could not but believe that he was saying them not like an ordinary preacher, but from the depths of his own realization... "He may be a madman, " I thought, "but only the fortunate few can have such renunciation. Even if insane, this man is the holiest of the holy, a true saint, and for that alone he deserves the reverent homage of mankind! "
During his second visit, Narendra had an even stranger experience. Sri Ramakrishna called him to sit by his side and in an ecstatic mood muttered some words and placed his right foot on Narendra's body. "With my eyes open, " Swami Vivekananda recalled, "I saw that the wall, and everything in the room, whirled rapidly and vanished into nought, and the whole universe together with my individuality was about to merge in an all encompassing mysterious void!" Narendra was terrified and cried out, "What are you doing to me? I have my parents, brothers, and sisters at home. " Then Sri Ramakrishna laughed and stroked the young man' s chest, and the experience vanished as quickly as it had come.
Narendra was tremendously puzzled by these experiences and was angry with himself for having succumbed to the influence of a "madman". But what the sceptic in him refused proved irresistibly fascinating to another part of his character, and
Narendra returned again and again to Dakshineshwar. On his part, Sri Ramakrishna described these early days of their relationship as being particularly painful to him: "I felt such a constant agonizing desire to see him! At times the pain would be so excruciating that I felt as if my head were being squeezed like a wet towel. I cried, 0 my darling, come to me! I cannot live without seeing you. " If Narendra failed to come to him for some days, he would become disconsolate. He would weep and pray to the Divine Mother, begging Her to make him come.
Their relationship continued in this way for some time. Narendra was a born idealist and seeker of truth, but his mind was intensely analytical and he subordinated his imagination to the demands of reason. Although his visits to Sri Ramakrishna were marked by overwhelming inner experiences, his great respect for Western material science and its processes made him want to test each of these experiences, and he would accept only those that he felt stood the test. He yearned for Truth, but would not believe anything merely through blind devotion. He needed direct vision to allay his doubts.
Later Sri Ramakrishna admitted that he was glad at heart that Narendra was a rebel; "without intellectual questioning and struggle, " he said, "no one can arrive at full illumination. " It was only after a series of powerful, undeniable experiences that Narendra accepted Sri Ramakrishna as, his Master. But before his final surrender Narendra Nath was to pass through a long period of suffering in his personal life. He had grown up in relative luxury, with few material worries. Then his father suddenly died. When the estate was settled the family found itself poor. Narendra, being the eldest son, was faced with the responsibility of supporting his mother, brothers and sisters. The hardship of these days drove Narendra almost to despair. He even expressed bitter doubts as to the existence of a God who could be author of such pain and evil. But these dark days also triggered an experience that would mark a decisive turning point in his life. This is how he described it:
One day the idea struck me that God listened to Sri Ramakrishna's prayers; so why should I not ask him to pray for me for the removal of my pecuniary needs?... I hurried to Dakshineshwar... He said, "My boy, I can't make such demands. But why don't you go and ask the Mother yourself? All your sufferings are due to your disregard of Her. " I said, "I do not know the Mother; you please speak to Her on my behalf. You must. " He replied tenderly, "My dear boy, I have done so again and again. But you do not accept Her, so She does not grant my prayer. All right... go to the Kali temple tonight, prostrate yourself before the Mother, and ask Her any boon you like. It shall be granted. She is Knowledge Absolute, the Inscrutable Power of Brahman. By Her mere
will She has given birth to this world. Everything is in Her power to give. "I believed every word and eagerly waited for the night... As I went I was filled with a divine intoxication... Reaching the temple as I cast my eyes on the image I actually found that the Divine Mother was living and conscious... I was caught in a surging wave of devotion and love. In the ecstasy of joy I prostrated myself and prayed, "Mother, give me discrimination! Give me renunciation. Give me knowledge and devotion! Grant that I may have the uninterrupted vision of Thee!" As soon as I returned, the Master asked me if I had prayed to the Mother for the removal of my worldly needs. I was startled at this question and said, "No, Sir, I forgot all about it... " "Go again, " he said, "and tell Her about your needs. "
Narendra goes a second time, and the same thing occurs. Again Sri Ramakrishna sends him back. He goes a third time:
... but on entering the temple a terrible shame overpowered me. I thought, "What a trifle I have come to pray to the Mother about! " In shame and remorse I bowed to Her respectfully and said, "Mother, I want nothing but knowledge and devotion. "
And so Narendra Nath came to know the Divine Mother, and the power of his Master. Later Sri Ramakrishna promised Narendra that his family would never be without plain food and clothing. The promise proved true, and now Narendra had more and more time to spend with him. These were the final years of the Master's and disciple's relationship, which was to reach an intensity described by those who observed it as "divine ". Sri Ramakrishna left his body when Narendra was only 23 years old.
Shortly before his passing, Sri Ramakrishna had called Narendra to his bedside, and then entered into deep meditation. Narendra felt that a subtle force, resembling an electric current, was entering his body. When the Master regained knowledge of the outer world, he said to him, "0 Naren, today I have given you everything I possess — now I am no more than a fakir, a penniless beggar. By the powers I have transmitted to you, you will accomplish great things in the world, and not until then will you return to the source whence you have come. "
After the passing of the Master on August 16, 1886, Narendra and the band of young disciples found themselves with no means of support if they wished to continue their life together as seekers. Their one asset was their burning aspiration to realise God and to spread the Master' s words.
The young men took the vows of sannyasa and started a Math' under extremely
1. Math: An institution of a spiritual order.
difficult conditions, bravely undergoing many privations. Narendra was their inspiration and their guide.
But Narendra longed for the peace of solitude. He also wanted to teach his brother monks not to depend upon him. One day he slipped away from the Math, alone and on foot, and became a wandering sannyasin. He travelled extensively in India from the Himalayan glaciers to the lands' end at Cape Comorin in the South. In central India he lived with a family of outcast sweepers and amidst them he found spiritual treasures, while their misery choked him. Absorbed within himself, he was a seething cauldron with "a soul on fire ". "I feel a mighty power! " he wrote during this time. "It is as if I were to blaze forth. There are so many powers in me! It seems to me as if I could revolutionize the world... "
In California, 1900
After a fierce inner struggle to integrate his intellect, his fiery spirit and his inherent spirituality, the two-fold mission of this man of destiny — namely, the quest for God and service to mankind — was to crystalize into a progressive action. On May 31, 1893, with the new name of Swami Vivekananda, he sailed from Bombay for the first World Parliament of Religions in Chicago, USA. He was 30 years old and an unaccredited delegate among the many religious leaders from numerous faiths and sects from all parts of the world. Nevertheless, Swami Vivekananda captured the centre of the stage of the Parliament. His magnetic presence brought people cheering to their feet as he began his first address: "Brothers and sisters of America... " The New York Herald had this to say: "He is undoubtedly the greatest figure in the Parliament of Religions. "
After the Parliament he toured the United States and later visited England, Europe, China and Japan. He won many followers, a good number of whom came to be with him in India. He made a second trip abroad in 1899. But his strenuous schedules ever since his days as a wandering sannyasin had affected his health adversely. He began to feel that his mission on earth was drawing to a close, and his last year was spent in the Math at Belur. On July 4, 1902, Swami Vivekananda went to his room, lay down, and quietly left his body. He was 39 years old.
Four years earlier, on another fourth of July, Swami Vivekananda had written a poem dedicated to that date which for him represented liberty; liberty of life and of spirit. Reading it now, one cannot but feel that Swami Vivekananda in some way embodied Liberty in its highest sense:
To the fourth of July
Behold the dark clouds melt away
That gathered thick at flight and hung
Like a gloomy pall above the earth!
Before thy magic touch the world
All hail to thee, thou lord of light!
A welcome new to thee today
O sun! Today thou sheddest liberty!
Bethink thee how the world did wait
And search for thee, through time and clime!
Move on, O lord, in thy resistless path,
Till thy high noon o' erspreads the world,
Till every land reflects thy light,
Till men and women, with uplifted head,
Behold their shackles broken and know
In springing joy their life renewed!
Swami Vivekananda's life corresponded to a time in the earth's history when men and women throughout the world began to ask for a wider vision of life, a more comprehensive vision that would harmonise the diverse claims of science and spirituality. His burning quest to join together knowledge, devotion and action was indeed unique, and his numerous speeches and letters bear witness to this. Let us now turn to some of them in an attempt to understand more deeply this "very lion among men", one of the greatest Vibhutis in the history of the world.
Sri Ramakrishna Paramahamsa
(In one of his lectures abroad, Swami Vivekananda spoke thus about his
Master, Sri Ramakrishna Paramahansa:)
I am what I am, and what I am is always due to him, whatever in me and in my words is good and true and eternal came to me through his mouth, his heart, his soul. Sri Ramakrishna is the spring of this phase of the earth's religious life, of its impulses and its activities. If I can show the world one glimpse of my Master, I shall not live in vain... His thoughts and his message were known to very few capable of giving them out. Among others, he left a few young boys who had renounced the world and were ready to carry on his work. Attempts were made to crush them. But they stood firm, having the inspiration of that great life before them. These young men,
living as sannyasins, begged through the streets of the city where they were born, although some of them came from high families. At first they met with great antagonism, but they persevered and went on from day to day spreading all over India the message of that great man, until the whole country was filled with the ideas he had preached. This man, from a remote village of Bengal, without education, by the sheer force of his own determination, realised the truth and gave it to others, leaving only a few young boys to keep it alive.
This is the message of Sri Ramakrishna to the modern world:
Do not care for doctrines, do not care for dogmas, or sects, or churches, or temples; they count for little compared with the essence of existence in each man, which is spirituality; and the more this is developed in man, the more powerful he is for good. Earn that first, acquire that, and criticize no one, for all doctrines and creeds have some good in them. Show by your lives that religion does not mean words, or names, or sects, but that it means spiritual realisation. Only those can understand who have felt. Only those who have attained to spirituality can communicate it to others, can be great teachers of mankind. They alone are the powers of light.'
(At the World's Parliament of Religions, in Chicago, at the end of the first meeting on 11 th September 1893, Swami Vivekananda spoke briefly:)
Sisters and Brothers of America,
It fills my heart with joy unspeakable to rise in response to the warm and cordial welcome which you have given us. I thank you in the name of the most ancient order of monks in the world; I thank you in the name of the mother of religions; and I thank you in the name of millions and millions of Hindu people of all classes and sects.
My thanks, also, to some of the speakers on this platform who, referring to the delegates from the Orient, have told you that these men from far-off nations may well claim the honour of bearing to different lands the idea of toleration. I am proud to belong to a religion which has taught the world both tolerance and universal acceptance. We believe not only in universal toleration, but we accept all religions as true. I am proud to belong to a nation which has sheltered the persecuted and the refugees of all religions and all nations of the earth. I am proud to tell you that we have gathered in our bosom the purest remnant of the Israelites, who came to Southern India and took refuge with us in the very year in which their holy temple was
shattered to pieces by Roman tyranny. I am proud to belong to the religion which has sheltered and is still fostering the remnant of the grand Zoroastrian nation. I will quote to you, brethren, a few lines from a hymn which I remember to have repeated from my earliest boyhood, which is every day repeated by millions of human beings:" As the different streams having their sources in different places all mingle their water in the sea, so, 0 Lord, the different paths which men take through different tendencies, various though they appear, crooked or straight, all lead to Thee."
The present convention, which is one of the most august assemblies ever held, is in itself a vindication, a declaration to the world of the wonderful doctrine preached in the Gita: "Whosoever comes for Me, through whatsoever form, I reach him; all men are struggling through paths which in the end lead to me." Sectarian- ism, bigotry, and its horrible descendant, fanaticism, have long possessed this beautiful earth. They have filled the earth with violence, drenched it often and often with human blood, destroyed civilisation and sent whole nations to despair. Had it not been for these horrible demons, human society would be far more advanced than it is now. But their time is come; and I fervently hope that the bell that tolled this morning in honour of this convention may be the death-knell of all fanaticism, of all persecutions with the sword or with the pen, and of all uncharitable feelings between persons wending their way to the same goal.
(Swami Vivekananda received wide acclaim during his years abroad. The success of his mission was extensively covered in the Indian Press, and when the news of Swami Vivekananda' s departure from Europe reached India, the hearts of the people were stirred. City after city planned regal welcomes for him. His progress from Colombo, where he landed in January 1897 to Madras, demonstrates how deeply he had endeared himself to the men and women of India. Here are some excerpts from one of the many talks he delivered along the way:)
My India, arise! Where is your vital force? In your Immortal Soul. Each nation, like each individual, has one theme in this life, which is its centre, the principal note round which every other note comes to form the harmony. If any nation attempts to throw off its national vitality, the direction which has become its own through the transmission of centuries, that nation dies... In one nation political power is its vitality, as in England. Artistic life in another, and so on. In India religious life forms the centre, the keynote of the whole music of the national life. And, therefore, if you succeed
in the attempt to throw off your religion and take up either politics or society, the result will be that you will become extinct. Social reform and politics have to be preached through the vitality of your religion... Every man has to make his own choice; so has every nation. We made our choice ages ago. And it is the faith in an Immortal Soul. I challenge anyone to give it up. How can you change your nature? ... Feel, therefore, my would-be reformers, my would-be patriots! Do you feel? Do you feel that millions and millions of the descendants of gods and of sages have become next-door neighbours to brutes? Do you feel that millions are starving today and millions have been starving for ages? Do you feel that ignorance has come over the land as a dark cloud? Does it make you restless? Does it make you sleepless? Has it made you almost mad? Are you seized with that one idea of the misery of ruin, and have you forgotten all about your name, your fame, your wives, your children, your property, even your own bodies? If so, that is the first step to becoming a patriot
It is a man-making education all around that we want. It is man-making theories that we want. And here is the test of truth: anything that makes you weak physically, intellectually, and spiritually, reject as poison; there is no life in it, it cannot be true. Truth is strengthening. Truth is purity, truth is all knowledge. Truth must be strengthening, must be enlightening, must be invigorating. Give up these weakening mysticisms and be strong. The greatest truths are the simplest things in the world, simple as your own existence.2
(In the Math, things came to a climax one day when a brother disciple said that Sri Ramakrishna had emphasized bhakti alone for spiritual seekers and that philanthropic activities, organisations, and patriotic work were the Swami's own peculiar ideas, the result of his Western education and travel in Europe and America. The Swami retorted with a sort of rough humour and said:)
What do you know? You are an ignorant man... What do you understand of religion? You are only good at praying with folded hands: "0 Lord! How beautiful is your nose! How sweet are your eyes!" and all such nonsense... And you think your salvation is secured and Sri Ramakrishna will come at the final hour and take you by the hand to the highest heaven! Study, public preaching, and doing humanitarian works are, according to you, maya, because he said to someone, "Seek and find God first; doing good to the world is a presumption!" As if God is such an easy thing to be achieved! As if He is such a fool as to make Himself a plaything in the hands of an imbecile!
You think you have understood Sri Ramakrishna better than myself! You think jnana is dry knowledge to be attained by a desert path, killing out the tenderest faculties of the heart! Your bhakti is sentimental nonsense which makes one impotent. You want to preach Sri Ramakrishna as you have understood him, which is mighty little! Hands off! Who cares for your Ramakrishna! Who cares for your bhakti and mukti? Who cares what your scriptures say? I will go into a thousand hells cheerfully if I can rouse my countrymen, immersed in tamas, to stand on their own feet and be men inspired with the spirit of karma-yoga. I am not a follower of Ramakrishna or anyone, but of him only who serves and helps others without caring for his own bhakti and mukti!
(The Swami's voice was choked with emotion, his body shook, and his eyes flashed fire. Quickly he went to the next room. A few moments later some of his brother disciples entered the room and found him absorbed in meditation, tears flowing from his half-closed eyes. After nearly an hour the Swami got tip, washed his face, and joined his spiritual brothers in the drawing-room. He said to them softly:)
When a man attains bhakti, his heart and nerves become so soft and delicate that he cannot bear even the touch of a flower! ... I cannot think or talk of Sri Ramakrishna long without being overwhelmed. So I am always trying to bind myself with the iron chains of jnana, for still my work for my motherland is unfin- ished and my message to the world not fully delivered. So as soon as I find that those feelings of bhakti are trying to come up and sweep me off my feet, I give a hard knock to them and make myself firm and adamant by bringing up austere jnana. Oh, I have work to do! I am a slave of Ramakrishna, who left his work to be done by me and will not give me rest till I have finished it. And oh, how shall I speak of him? Oh, his love for me!3
(Swami Vivekananda poured tremendous energy into the training of his fellow monks and disciples of Sri Ramakrishna. These excerpts are from the conversations he had with them:)
You will go to hell if you seek your own salvation! Seek the salvation of others if you want to reach the Highest. Kill out the desire for personal mukti. This is the greatest spiritual discipline. Work, my children, work with your whole heart and
soul! That is the thing. Mind not the fruit of work. What if you go to hell working for others? That is worth more than to gain heaven by seeking your own salvation ..Sri Ramakrishna came and gave his life for the world. I will also sacrifice my life. You also, every one of you, should do the same. All these works and so forth are only a beginning. Believe me, from the shedding of our life-blood will arise gigantic, heroic workers and warriors of God who will revolutionize the world.
You must try to combine in your life immense idealism with immense practicality. You must be prepared to go into deep meditation now, and the next moment you must be ready to go and cultivate fields. You must be prepared to explain the intricacies of the scriptures now, and the next moment to go and sell the produce of ;he fields... The true man is he who is strong as strength itself and yet possesses a woman's heart. The history of the world is the history of a few men who had faith in themselves. That faith calls out the inner divinity. You can do anything. You fail only when you do not strive sufficiently to manifest infinite power. As soon as a man loses faith in himself, death comes. Believe first in yourself and then in God. A handful of strong men will move the world. We need a heart to feel, a brain to conceive, and a strong arm to do the work... One man contains within him the whole universe. One particle of matter has all the energy of the universe at its back. In a conflict between the heart and the brain, follow your heart.4
(In 1899 Swami Vivekananda again sailed to the West. But he seemed to be more and more detached from the world. This extract is from a letter he wrote during this period to Miss Josephine Mac-Leod, one of his closest western disciples:)
Work is always difficult. Pray for me, Joe, that my work may stop for ever and my whole being would be absorbed in Mother. Her work She knows...
I am well, very well mentally. I feel the rest of the soul more than that of the body. The battles are lost and won. I have bundled my things and am waiting for the Great Deliverer.
Siva, 0 Siva, carry my boat to the other shore!
After all, Joe, I am only the boy who used to listen with rapt wonderment to the wonderful words of Ramakrishna under the banyan at Dakshineswar. That is my true nature — works and activities, doing good and so forth, are all superimpositions.
Now I again hear his voice thrilling my soul. Bonds are breaking — love dying, work becoming tasteless, the glamour is off life. Now only the voice of the Master calling. "I come. Lord, I come." "Let the dead bury the dead. Follow thou me." "I come, my beloved Lord, I come."
Yes, I come, Nirvana is before me. I feel it at times, the same infinite ocean of peace, without a ripple, a breath.
I am glad I was born, glad I suffered so, glad I did make big blunders, glad to enter peace. I leave none bound, I take no bonds. Whether this body will fail and release me or I enter into freedom in the body, the old man is gone, gone for ever, never to come back again!
The guide, the guru, the leader, the teacher, has passed away; the body, the student, the servant, is left behind...
The sweetest moments of my life have been when I was drifting. I am drifting again — with the bright warm sun ahead and masses of vegetation around — and in the heat everything is so still, so calm — and I am drifting, languidly — in the warm heart of the river. I dare not make a splash with my hands or feet — for fear of breaking the wonderful stillness, stillness that makes you feel sure it is an illusion!
Behind my work was ambition, behind my love was personality, behind my purity was fear, behind my guidance the thirst for power. Now they are vanishing and I drift. I come Mother, I come, in Thy warm bosom, floating wheresoever Thou takest me, in the voiceless, in the strange, in the wonderland, I come — a spectator, no more an actor.
Oh, it is so calm! My thoughts seem to come from a great, great distance in the interior of my own heart. They seem like faint, distant whispers, and peace is upon everything, sweet, sweet peace — like that one feels for a few moments just before falling into sleep, when things are seen and felt like shadows — without fear, without love, without emotion — peace that one feels alone, surrounded with statues and pictures. I come. Lord, I come.
The world is, but not beautiful nor ugly, but as sensations without exciting any emotion. Oh, Joe, the blessedness of it! Everything is good and beautiful; for things are all losing their relative proportions to me — my body among the first. OM That Existence!5
1. "My Master", Selections/row Swami Vivekananda, (Calcutta: Advaita Ashrama, 1975), p. 359 ff.
2. "My Plan of Campaign", Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda, Vol. Ill, p. 207 ff.
3. Swami Nikhilananda, Vivekananda : a Biography (Calcutta: Advaita Ashrama, 1975), pp. 246-247.
4. Ibid, p. 286.
5. Selections from Swami Vivekananda, op. cit., p. 547.
A few dates
1863 (January, 12)
Birth of Vivekananda in Calcutta.
Encounter with Ramakrishna
1886 (August, 16)
Passing of Ramakrishna.
Vivekananda starts to spread his message in India.
1893 (September, 11)
World's Parliament of Religions in USA
Return to India.
Foundation of Ramakrishna mission.
Second trip abroad.
1902 (July, 4)
Vivekananda leaves his body.
Suggestions for further reading
Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda, The. Calcutta: Advaita Ashrama, 16th edition, 1984. Dhar, Sailendra Nath. A comprehensive Biography of Swami Vivekananda, (2 Volumes). Madras:
Vivekananda Prakashan Kendra, I st edn, 1975.
Life of Swami Vivekananda by his Eastern and Western Disciples, The. Calcutta: Advaita Ashrama,
5th edition, 1981.
Nikhilananda, Swami. Vivekananda (A Biography). Calcutta: Advaita Ashrama.
Rolland, Romain. The Life of Vivekananda and the Universal Gospel. Calcutta: Advaita Ashrama.
Selection from Swami Vivekananda. Calcutta: Advaita Ashrama, 6th edition, 1975.
Tapasyananda, Swami. Swami Vivekananda, His Life and Legacy. Madras: Sri Ramakrishna Math.