[Those fortunate enough to have witnessed Swami Vivekananda in action have documented their experiences. These accounts, put together, help create a vivid image of Swamiji-the man, the saint, the philosopher-with each story highlighting a new facet of his character or presenting his view on a matter. The following piece is the first of a series based on such recollections of many direct disciples and contemporaries of Sri Ramakrishna and Swamiji.-Ed.]
Sri Ramakrishna brought Narendranath Datta (Swami Vivekananda) to the world to preach his message. He knew Narendra's true nature and made remarks about him such as: 'Narendra was one of the seven great sages who were in a perpetual state of meditation. in the divine kingdom,' 'He is that ancient Sage Narayana, in human form.' and 'Narendra is a great soul, perfect in meditation.'
One day Keshab Chandra Sen, Vijay Krishna Goswami and other celebrated leaders of the Brahmo Samaj were seated with Sri Ramakrishna. Young Narendra was also present. In an exalted mood, Sri Ramakrishna looked at Keshab and Vijay with an affectionate gaze. After they took their leave, Sri Ramakrishna said, 'Keshab possesses one power that has made him world famous but Narendra is endowed with eighteen such powers. I have seen the divine light in Keshab and Vijay burning like a candle flame but in Narendra it shines with the radiance of the sun, dispelling the last vestiges of ignorance and delusion.'
Narendra considered himself unworthy of such praise and vehemently protested to Sri Ramakrishna, Why do you say such things? People will think you're mad if you talk like that! Keshab is famous all over the world. Vijay is a saint. I am an insignificant schoolboy. How can you speak of us in the same breath? Please, I beg of you, never say such things again!' Pleased, Sri Ramakrishna responded, 'But what can I do about it, my child? You don't suppose I'd say such things of my own accord? It was Mother who showed me the truth about you and so I had to say it. Mother has never lied to me.'
One day, Sri Ramakrishna took Narendra to the Panchavati and told him, 'Look, I possess the eight occult powers. But I decided long ago that I would never use them and I find no need for them. But you will have to preach religion and do many other things. I have decided to give those powers to you. Please accept them.' Narendra asked in reply, 'Will they help me realize God?' When Sri Ramakrishna explained that they might help to some extent in preaching religion but would not help him attain God-realization, Narendra declined those powers. He later said that Sri Ramakrishna was extremely pleased by his refusal. However, before leaving his body, Sri Ramakrishna empowered Narendra and said, 'Today I have given you my all and I have become a beggar. With this power you are to do much work for the good of the world.'
Much later, someone had asked Swami Saradananda what eighteen powers Swami Vivekananda possessed and he had replied that Sri Ramakrishna had not told him anything about them. It is possible that the powers are the same ones listed in the Bhagavatam (XI.15) where Sri Krishna describes eighteen powers to Uddhava: 'The sages, who are experts in yoga, have said there are eighteen siddhis or supernatural powers. Of these, eight siddhis originate from Me and the remaining ten emerge from sattva qualities. Anima, mahima, laghima, prapti, prakamya, ishita, vashita and kamavasaita-these eight are my intrinsic powers. Freedom from hunger or thirst, the ability to hear and see from afar, speed like mind, the ability to take any form and enter anyone's body, to die according to one's wish, to watch the devas playing with the apsaras, to achieve whatever one resolves to do, and to have access to anywhere-these ten siddhis emerge due to the preponderance of sattva. In addition to these eighteen siddhis, there are eight lesser powers, such as knowledge of the past, present and future; the capacity to endure heat and cold; the ability to read others minds and overcoming the effects of fire, sun, light, water and poison. My devotees are endowed with these qualities naturally.'
Moreover, in the Yoga Sutras, Patanjali mentioned in the chapter on 'Powers' that yogis can achieve various kinds of occult powers by practising samyama or concentrations, meditation and samadhi. Like Sri Ramakrishna, Swamiji considered occult powers to be obstacles spiritual life. Power or energy is one but it manifests in many ways. For instance, the same electricity is behind the functioning of a light bulb, fan, or computer. Similarly, the divine power in Swamiji manifested in many ways. Seldom is it found that so many talents are manifested in one person. Sharat Chandra Chakrabarty, a disciple of Swamiji, wrote, 'In knowledge, Swamiji was Shankara; in large-heartedness, Buddha; in devotion, Narada; in the knowledge of Brahman, Shukadeva; in debate, Brihaspati; in beauty, Kamadeva; in heroism, Arjuna; and in the knowledge of scriptures, Vyasadeva.'
Swamiji was a man of wisdom, an ideal worker, a yogi and devotee, all rolled into one; he was a monk, an ascetic, a sage and mystic; he was a leader, an orator and artist, a poet, writer, conversationalist, debater, singer, musician and humorist; he was a philosopher, linguist, an educationist, a patriot, humanist and reformer. According to Swami Turiyananda, Swamiji was the perfect man.
We never get tired of hearing about a person we love. The more we hear about our beloved, the more we wish to know. This is a sign of love. In this article I shall depict a few incidents that reveal the various facets of Swamiji. Some of these anecdotes were published, some have been gleaned from old journals and the rest were hiding in the unpublished diaries of monks. These lesser-known incidents must come to light so that we can have a complete picture of Swamiji's gigantic personality.
Swamiji wanted to see how people manifest their true greatness through little actions, such as how they eat, wear their clothes or treat their servants. A meek, cowardly person can also prove to be a hero when his time comes. A great person should demonstrate greatness in each and every deed-big or small. In this account, we will chronicle some incidents from Swamiji's life that seem insignificant but in which his divinity and love for humanity are amply revealed.
A few years before he abandoned his body, Swamiji began to sing his swan song. In 1900, he told an American devotee in San Francisco, 'See, I have to take birth again.' 'Why, Swamiji?' asked the devotee. 'Because,' he replied, 'I have fallen in love with human beings.' This statement arose from the innermost feeling of Swamiji-Narayana in human form, a universal man and a lover of humankind.
Swamiji's brother Mahendranath Dutta reminisced: 'The main goal of Naren's spiritual disciplines was not to obtain occult powers but to attain control over such powers. He sought to become completely detached from the objective world. At that time his thought was, "Who will win? I, the pure consciousness, or you, the objective world? The world cannot overpower me, I will conquer it."'
'Girish Ghosh once told me that Naren had said to him, "Maya is trying to overpower me and I am trying to overpower her. There cannot be any compromise. Either maya will die or I will die. Both of us can't exist together." Girish later said, "What lofty ideas Naren had! What firm determination! I have never heard such things. He wanted to trample the world of maya and establish his real Self over it. This is an original idea! Only Naren can say such a thing as he is a man of strong determination. But not many people liked his ideas. Some criticized him." This was Naren's mood in the first stage of his sadhana--acquire spiritual power and preserve it in a deep recess of the heart. This was the attitude of Naren which many of his brother disciples deeply imbibed.'
'Once Naren lamented to Girish, "I can forget everything, even the body, except that crazy brahmin of Dakshineswar. He has become my obstacle. If I do not forget him, I can't have the supreme knowledge of Brahman which is beyond name and form." Girish was dumbfounded as he was a great devotee of Sri Ramakrishna.'
'On another occasion Girish said, "What is Naren saying? He will forsake his guru!" Then he continued, "I can't even imagine what lofty plane Naren has ascended to! He is saying that the crazy brahmin of Dakshineswar is the hindrance to his goal. This kind of attitude is possible only for Naren."'
One day, during a conversation, a gentleman pointed out that Swamiji placed great emphasis on renunciation. Swami Turiyananda replied, 'Yes, it is true. But he also initiated seva dharma (service to humanity). If you want to accept Swamiji's ideas, take him in totality and not partially. There are some people who do not want to work at all. Sri Ramakrishna used to say about them, "Put ready-made butter in their mouth." These people want to lead an easy life. Such people cannot make progress even after taking monastic vows. They remain in the same place. One cannot do good to others without sacrificing one's own life. This requires unbounded compassion and patience. One needs good health to serve others, otherwise one feels angry and frustrated.'
'Swamiji was a man of sattva guna. Who else could possess so many noble qualities? It is not hearsay. I lived with him and saw for myself. He sat for meditation at nine o'clock at night and got up at five in the morning and then went to bathe. Mosquitoes covered his body in such large numbers that it seemed as if he were wearing a blanket. He looked like Lord Shiva when meditating. These are the signs of sattvik qualities-full control over the senses and the mind and complete tranquility. He observed that India would not make any, progress without developing rajas (activity). So he introduced nishkama karma (unselfish action). Thus rajas is blended, with sattva. It takes great effort to serve the common people. One must go to the level of those people and then lift them slowly to a higher plane.'
Swami Shuddhananda recalled, 'It is extremely difficult to build one's life according to Sri Ramakrishna's ideals. So the compassionate Sri Ramakrishna said to ordinary people like us, "I have done sixteen parts. you do one sixteenth of that." This reminds me an incident that took place between Sri Ramakrishna and Swamiji. Swamiji, then Narendranath, used to visit Sri Ramakrishna regularly. Narendra had a stylish haircut. Without saying anything Sri Ramakrishna pointed out his foppishness. Narendra responded in turn by pointing at Sri Ramakrishna's, fancy sandals, his hubble-bubble, mattress, and bolster. Sri Ramakrishna then told him, "Listen, I have practised severe austerities to realize God. If you can do even one-sixteenth of that, I will make you sleep on a fancy bedstead with several mattresses."'
'Inspired by Sri Ramakrishna's life, Swamiji practised sadhana and austerities for many years. When Swamiji returned from America after spreading the message of Vedanta in the West, his Western disciples gave him a spring bed and soft mattresses. (These are still in the room he used at Belur Math.) While using that bed, Swamiji would remember Sri Ramakrishna's words and relate them to the monks while shedding tears.'
'While at his Kolkata reception, he said, referring to his guru Sri Ramakrishna, "If there has been anything achieved by me, by thoughts, words or deeds, if from my lips has ever fallen one word that has helped anyone in the world, I lay no claim to it, it was his. But if there have been curses falling from my lips, if there has been hatred coming out of me, it is all mine and not his. All that has been weak has been mine and all that has been life giving, strengthening, pure and holy, has been his inspiration, his words, he himself... judge him not through me. I am only a weak instrument. Let not his character be judged by seeing me. It was so great that if I or any other of his disciples spent hundreds of lives, we could not do justice to a millionth part of what he really was."'
Swami Vimalananda recalled, 'While Sri Ramakrishna was suffering from his last illness, Mahendralal Sarkar had diagnosed the disease to be cancer of the throat. He told the disciples that it was an infectious disease and advised them to be careful when they nursed him. Some of the young disciples became a little nervous. Swamiji noticed this. He went into the room where Sri Ramakrishna was lying, looked at the vessel containing the discharges of mucous and pus, took it up and drank from it in front of the other disciples. From that day, the thought of infection never troubled their minds again.'
Swami Nirlepananda recalled, 'I remember that old abandoned house in Baranagore that was notorious for being haunted. In fact, Swami Turiyananda told me that he had seen a ghost there. Narendra would call the inmates of the Baranagore Math dana (demons) who did not care for the world of the senses. If you wish you can meditate on Narendra, the leader of that group. Imagine him as a shaven-headed, well-built, lively, beautiful, ochre-clad sannyasi (not as in his American picture in which he sports a stylish haircut). Even the poet Kalidasa, the favourite son of Saraswati, would be incapable of describing his beauty with appropriate words.'
'It seemed as if he was a creation of an eminent artist. His large lotus-like eyes were beyond comparison. Once, referring to Swamiji's eyes, Swami Saradananda said, "How can I describe those eyes?" and then remained silent. One disciple said, "When Swamiji slept in Balaram Basu's hall, I saw that his eyelids were not fully closed. His eyes remained partly open, like Lord Shiva's."'
'I had the good fortune of seeing Swamiji a couple of times at Belur Math. I found him to be very reserved. The members of the Math were afraid of him. One evening, we went to Belur Math by boat and Pulin was singing for us in the living room. But the music stopped when we heard Swamiji coming downstairs. We heard from Sri Ramakrishna's disciples that Swamiji had a very deep and serious personality. While walking on the bank of the Ganga, he began to chant in his melodious voice the invocation of the Gayatri mantra: ayahi varade devi -'O adorable goddess Gayatri, do Thou reveal Thyself to us.' Then he came under the mango tree in the courtyard and went into samadhi. Swami Premananda and other disciples were extremely concerned. Swamiji's eyes were as red as the hibiscus and his steps were faltering as if he were drunk. Gradually that mood dissipated and he paced in the courtyard for a long time. Sometimes he said something loudly. We observed him from a distance.'
'When he was in a good mood, he was very warm and friendly; even animals would flock to him. He had a magnetic personality. One can rightly say about him that when he laughed, everyone laughed; and when he cried, everyone cried. Once he instructed me to be self-reliant, saying, "Do not take service from anybody. Do your own work. Know for certain, no task is insignificant."'
Swami Vimalananda writes, 'While staying at the Baranagore Math, Swamiji was taken ill and it became necessary for him to leave the city. His brother monks, set upon restoring Swamiji to health, collected a few rupees to pay his passage to Shimultala, about two hundred miles northwest of Kolkata. One day, as Swamiji was going to eat his meal, he saw some poor people anxiously waiting at his door. Upon enquiry, he came to know that they were waiting for the water that the rice was cooked in to satisfy their hunger. Swamiji immediately gave his meal to them and returned to Kolkata.'
'Swamiji could not bear to see others suffering. One day, Swamiji had to go to the other end of the city on some business. He took with him his tram fare, probably an anna, and left home. As he was about to step into the car, a man in distress came to him and asked for help. Swamiji immediately gave him what little money he had which in those days of suffering meant a good deal and walked to his destination.' Such was Swamiji's empathy for others.