Reminiscences of Swami Vivekananda
K.S. Sundarama Iyer
I MET Swami Vivekananda for the first time at Trivandrum in December 1892, and was then privileged to see and know a good deal of him. He came to Trivandrum in the course of an extended Indian tour, fulfilling the time-honoured practice obtaining among Indian monks of paying a visit to, and making tapas (spiritual austerities) at the sacred shrines in the four corners of the punyabhumi (sacred land), viz Badari, Kedara, Dwaraka, Puri, and Rameswaram, and claiming the hospitality and obeisance due to his sacred order from the Hindu householder. He came to me accompanied by a Mohammedan guide. My second son — a little boy of twelve, who has since passed away — took him for, and announced him to me as, a Mohammedan too, as he well might from his costume which was quite unusual for a Hindu Sannyasin of Southern India. I took him upstairs, entered into conversation, and made him due obeisance as soon as I learnt what he was. Almost the first thing he asked me to do was to arrange for his Mohammedan attendant's meals. His Mohammedan companion was a peon in the Cochin State service, and had been detailed to accompany him to Trivandrum by the then Secretary to the Dewan, Mr. W. Ramaiyya, B.A., formerly Principal of the Vizagapatnam College. For himself the Swami would take no introduction, or have any sort of arrangement previously made for his comfort while on the way or after reaching Trivandrum. The Swami had taken almost nothing except a little milk during the two previous days, and only after his Mohammedan peon had been provided with meals and taken leave would he have any thought bestowed on himself.
Within a few minutes' conversation, I found that the Swami was a mighty man. Having ascertained from him that, since leaving Ernakulam he had taken almost nothing, I asked him what food he was accustomed to. He replied, "Anything you like; we Sannyasins have no tastes." We had some little conversation, as there was yet an interval of a few minutes before dinner. On learning that the Swami was a Bengali, I made the observation that the Bengalis had produced many great men — and, foremost of them all, the Brahmo preacher, Keshab Chandra Sen. It was then that the Swami mentioned to me the name of his guru Shri Ramakrishna, and expatiated briefly on his eminent spiritual endowments, and took my breath completely away by the remark that Keshab was a mere child when compared with Shri Ramakrishna, that not only he, but many eminent Bengalis of a generation past, had been influenced by the sage, that Keshab had in later life received the benefit of his inspiration and had undergone some considerable change for the better in his religious views, that many Europeans had sought the acquaintance of Shri Ramakrishna and regarded him as a semi-divine personage, and that no less a man than the late Director of Public Instruction in Bengal, Mr. C.H. Tawney, had written a paper on the character, genius, catholicity, and inspiring power of the great sage.
All this conversation had occupied us while the Swami's food was being prepared and during the time he was breaking his nearly two days' fast by a hearty dinner. The Swami's presence, his voice, the glitter in his eyes, and the flow of his words and ideas were so inspiring that I excused myself that day from attending at the palace of the late Martanda Varma, the First Prince of Travancore, who was prosecuting his M. A. studies under my tuition — my services having been lent to the Travancore State by the Madras government to prepare him first for the B.A. Degree and later for the M.A. The Swami having had some rest, I took him in the evening to the house of Prof. Rangacharya, who was then professor of chemistry in the Trivandrum College — his services, too, having then been lent to the Travancore State — and who was even then at the height of his reputation as a scholar and man of science not only in Travancore, but throughout Southern India. Not finding him at home, we drove to the Trivandrum Club. There I introduced the Swami to various gentlemen present, and to Prof. Rangacharya when he came in later on. to the late Prof. Sundaram Pillai, M.A., and others among whom I distinctly remember a late Brahmin Dewan Peshkar and my friend Narayana Menon — who, I believe, is one of the Dewan Peshkars today in Travancore — owing to an incident which, however trifling in itself, brought out a prominent characteristic of the Swami, how he was all eyes and noted closely all that was passing around him and could use them effectively, how he combined with his rare gentleness and sweetness of temper, the presence of mind and the power of retort which could quickly silence an opponent. Mr. Narayana Menon had, while leaving the Club earlier in the evening, saluted the Brahmin Dewan Peshkar and the latter had returned it in the time-honoured fashion in which Brahmins who maintain old forms of etiquette return the salute of Shudras, i.e., by raising the left hand a little higher than the right. Many members of the Club had come and gone, and at last five of us were left, the Swami, the Dewan Peshkar, his brother, Prof. Rangacharya, and myself. As we were dispersing, the Dewan Peshkar made his obeisance to the Swami which the latter returned in the manner usual with Hindu monks by simply uttering the name of Narayana. This roused the Peshkar's ire, for he wanted the Swami's obeisance, too, in the fashion in which he had made his own. The Swami then turned on him and said, "If you could exercise your customary form of etiquette in returning Narayana Menon's greeting, why should you resent my own adoption of the Sannyasin's customary mode of acknowledging your obeisance to me?" This reply had the desired effect, and next day the gentleman's brother came to us and conveyed some kind of apology for the awkward incident of the night previous.
During the evening, short as his stay had been at the Club premises, the Swami's personality had made an impression on all. Hindu society in Trivandrum town presents a strikingly motley appearance, as all the race and caste varieties peculiar to Southern India commingle within its narrow limits. The Trivandrum Club of which all the leading educated men are members presents, too, every evening a similarly motley gathering representative of all those varieties, or almost all. The Swami entered freely into conversation with all, but in Professor Rangacharya he found the man most near to himself in all that he most valued in life — an almost encyclopaedic learning, a rare command of eloquent expression, the power to call up readily all his vast intellectual resources to point a moral or prick the bubble of a plausible argument, an emotional temperament which unerringly pointed to the love of whatever is good and noble in man and beautiful in nature and art. One remark of Professor Sundaram Pillai — that, as a Dravidian, he considered himself entirely outside the Hindu polity — put him somewhat out of court with the Swami, who, later on, remarked of him that eminent as he was as a scholar, he had thoughtlessly given himself away to the sway of race prejudice, which already during his travels the Swami had noted as an unpleasant characteristic of certain South Indian minds of the unbalanced or mediocre type.
The Swami paid a visit the next day to Prince Martanda Varma, who, as already stated, was then under my tuition and studying for the M.A. Degree, and who, when informed by me of the remarkable intellectual and imposing presence of my visitor, communicated to the Swami his desire for an interview. Of course I accompanied the Swami and was present at the conversation between him and the Prince. The Swami happened to mention his visits to various native princes and courts during his travels. This greatly interested the Prince who interrogated him regarding his impressions. The Swami then told him that, of all the Hindu ruling princes he had met, he had been most impressed with the capacity, patriotism, energy and foresight of H.H. the Gaekwar of Baroda, that he had also known and greatly admired the high qualities of the small Rajput Chief of Khetri, and that, as he came more and more south, he had found a growing deterioration in the character and capacity of Indian princes and chiefs. The Prince then asked him if he had seen his uncle, the ruler of Travancore. The Swami had not yet had time to arrange for a visit to His Highness. I may here mention at once that a visit was arranged two days later through the good offices of the then Dewan, Mr. Sankara Subbier. The Maharaja received the Swami, inquired of his welfare, and told him that the Dewan would provide him with every convenience during his stay both in Trivandrum and elsewhere within the State. The visit lasted only for two or three minutes, and so the Swami returned a little disappointed, though impressed with H.H.'s gracious and dignified deportment.
To return to the Swami's conversation with the Prince. The Prince inquired regarding his impression of the late Maharaja of the Mysore State, whose guest the Swami had been for several days. The gist of the Swami's view was that the Maharaja, like many other Indian rulers, was a good deal under leading strings, that he could not or would not assert himself, and that had produced some undesirable results. One incident he mentioned may be of some interest. I cannot give names. The Swami ventured to advise the Maharaja to remove from his neighbourhood a man of some reputation, who was supposed to be a favourite of his and of whom there had prevailed, rightly or wrongly, possibly wrongly, an unfavourable impression in the public mind. To this request, the Maharaja made the strange reply that, as the Swami was one of the greatest men he had seen and destined to fulfil a great mission in the land, he should not expose his life to the risk there certainly existed in the Indian Prince's palace for one who openly ventured to disparage, or to endeavour to secure the dismissal of, one of his favourites. This throws light on the way in which the Swami and the Maharaja understood themselves and understood each other. The Swami then made earnest inquiry regarding Prince Martanda Varma's studies, and his aims in life. The Prince replied that he had already taken some interest in the doings of the people of Travancore and that he had resolved to do what he could, as a leading and loyal subject of the Maharaja and as a member of the ruling family, to advance their welfare. The Prince was struck, like all others who had come into contact with him, with the Swami's striking figure and attractive features; and, being an amateur photographer, asked the Swami for a sitting and took a fine photograph which he skilfully developed into an impressive picture and later on sent as an interesting exhibit to the next Fine Arts Exhibition held in the Madras Museum. On leaving the Prince's presence, the Swami remarked to me that he thought there was plenty of promise in him, but that he trusted that the University education which he was receiving would not spoil him, evidently meaning that he might be left more to himself, the graduate that he was already, than he seemed to be by being kept under my further care and instruction. But, in fact, the Prince was only being helped to think for himself and no longer kept under control and, after another year or so, discontinued his studies.
Throughout the second day and even during the greater part of the third, we were left a good deal to ourselves, except for a brief visit in the evening from Prof. Rangacharya. The Swami found me much inclined to orthodox Hindu modes of life and beliefs. Perhaps that was why he spoke a good deal in the vein suited to my tastes and views, though occasionally he burst out into spirited denunciation of the observance of mere deshachara or local usage. As I keep no-diary and write only from the tattered remains of an impression left on the mind by events which took place fully twenty years back, I cannot vouch for the exact order of topics as they arose on this and other days. I had occasional and deeply interesting conversations with the Swami, sometimes when we were left to ourselves, at other times when visitors, to whom the news had been taken that a highly learned and gifted Sannyasin from the North was staying with me, called to see him and earn the spiritual merit of rendering him homage in due form.
The Swami once made a spirited attack on the extravagant claims put forth by science on men's allegiance. "If religion has its superstitions," the Swami remarked, "science has its superstitions too." Both the mechanical and evolutionary theories are, on examination, found inadequate and unsatisfying and still there are large numbers of men who speak of the entire universe as an open secret. Agnosticism has also bulked large in men's esteem, but has only betrayed its ignorance and arrogance by ignoring the laws and truths of the Indian science of thought-control. Western psychology has miserably failed to cope with the superconscious aspects and laws of human nature. Where European science has stopped short, Indian psychology comes in and explains, illustrates and teaches how to render real and practical laws appertaining to higher states of existence and experience. Religion alone — and especially the religion of the Indian sages — can understand the subtle and secret working of the human mind and conquer its unspiritual cravings so as to realize the one Existence and comprehend all else as its limitation and manifestation when under the bondage of matter. Another subject on which the Swami spoke was the distinction between the world of gross matter (laukika) and the world of fine matter (alaukika). The Swami explained how both kept man within the bondage of the senses, and only he who rose superior to both could attain to the freedom which is the aim of all life and raise himself above the petty vanities of the world, whether of men or gods. The Swami spoke to me of the institution of caste, and held that the Brahmin would continue to live as long as he found unselfish work to do and freely gave of his knowledge and all to the rest of the population. In the actual words of the Swami which are still ringing in my ears, "The Brahmin has done great things for India; he is doing great things for India, and he is destined to do still greater things for India in the future." The Swami also declared himself sternly against all interference against the shastric (scriptural) usages and injunctions in regard to the status and marriage of women. Women as well as the lower classes and castes must receive Sanskrit education, imbibe the ancient spiritual culture, and realize in practice all the spiritual ideals of the rishis, and then they would take into their own hands all questions affecting their own status and solve them in the light thrown on them by their own knowledge of the truths of religion and the enlightened perception of their own needs and requirements. I also asked the Swami for his views on the question of sea-voyage. He replied that the social environment in Western countries must be better prepared than it was and is by the preaching of the Vedanta before Brahmins and other caste Hindus could find it suitable for their accustomed life of ceremonial purity and those time-worn and time-honoured restrictions as regards food, drink, etc.,which have made them for ages almost the sole champions of, and channels for, the gospel of mercy. There was not the least objection, however, in the case of Hindus who were already free from, or were prepared to throw aside, all such restrictions.
On the third and fourth day of the Swami's stay with me, I sent information to a valued friend of mine in Trivandrum. who is my senior in years and still living, a man for whom, on account of his character, culture, purity of life, and sincere devotion to the Lord. I felt then, and have continued to feel, attached by the ties of genuine regard and friendship. Mr. S. Rama Rao, the then Director of Vernacular Instruction in Travancore. Mr. Rama Rao felt infinitely attracted to the Swami by the power of his spirituality and devotional fervour and asked him for the favour of having bhiksha (alms) in his house, which the Swami graciously consented to do. After the bhiksha was over, they returned together, and the Swami continued his instructive and fervid discourses to us. I remember vividly how once Mr. Rama Rao wished the Swami to explain indriya-nigraha, the restraint of the senses. The Swami then launched forth into a vivid narration of a story very much like what is usually told of Lila-Shukha, the famous composer of Krishna-Karnamrita. The vivid picture he gave of the last stage in which the hero is taken to Vrindaban and puts out his own eyes when he gets severely handled for his amorous pursuit of a Sett's daughter there, and then proclaims his repentance and his resolve to end his days in unswerving meditation on the divine Shri Krishna at the scene of the Lord's sportive deeds in the days of His childhood on earth, bursts on my mind, even at this distance of twenty-one years, with somewhat of the effect of those irresistibly charming and undying notes on the flute by the late miraculous musician Sarabha Shastriar of Kumbakonam. The Swami's concluding words after mentioning the closing incident of putting out the eyes were: "Even this extreme step must, if necessary, be taken as a preliminary to the restraint of the wandering and unsubjugated senses and the consequent turning of the mind towards the Lord."
On the third or fourth day of his stay, I made inquiries, at the Swami's request, regarding the whereabouts of Mr. Manmatha Nath Bhattacharya — now deceased — who was then Assistant to the Accountant-General, Madras, and who had come down to Trivandrum on official duty in connection with some defalcations alleged to have taken place at the Resident's Treasury. From that time the Swami used daily to spend his mornings with Mr. Bhattacharya and stay for dinner. One day, however. I complained, and unfortunately there was a visitor too, to detain him, as I shall presently have to state. The Swami made a characteristic reply on seeing how unwilling I was to part with him, "We, Bengalis, are a clannish people." He said also that Mr. Bhattacharya had been his school or college mate, and that he had an additional claim for consideration as he was the son of the late world-renowned scholar, Pandit Mahesh Chandra Nyayaratna, formerly the Principal of the Calcutta Sanskrit College. The Swami also told me that he had long taken no fish food, as the South Indian Brahmins whose guest he had been throughout his South Indian tour were forbidden both fish and flesh, and would fain avail himself of this opportunity to have his accustomed fare. I at once expressed my loathing for the taking of fish or flesh as food. The Swami said in reply that the ancient Brahmins of India were accustomed to take meal and even beef and were called upon to kill cows and other animals in yajnas or for giving madhuparka to guests. He also held that the introduction and spread of Buddhism led to the gradual discontinuance of flesh as food, though the Hindu shastras (scriptures) had always expressed a theoretical preference for those who avoided the use of flesh-foods, and that the disfavour into which flesh had fallen was one of the chief causes of the gradual decline of the national strength, and the final overthrow of the national independence of the united ancient Hindu races and states of India. He informed me, at the same time, that in recent years Bengalis had, as a community, begun to use freely animal food of several kinds and that they generally got a Brahmin to sprinkle a little water consecrated by the utterance of a few mantras over a whole flock of sheep and then, without any further qualms of religious conscience, proceeded to hand, draw, and quarter them. The Swami's opinion, at least as expressed in conversation with me, was that the Hindus must freely take to the use of animal food if India was to at all cope with the rest of the world in the present race for power and predominance among the world's communities, whether within the British empire, or beyond its limits. I, as a Brahmin of strong orthodox leanings, expressed my entire dissent from his views and held that the Vedic religion had alone taught to man his kinship and unity with nature, that man should not yield to the play of sensuous cravings or the narrow passion for political dominance. The ennobling gospel of universal mercy which had been the unique possession of the Hindus, especially of the Brahmins of South India, should never be abandoned as mistaken, out of date, or uncivilized, and that the world can and ought to make a great ethical advance by adopting a humane diet, and also that no petty considerations of national strength or revival should prevail against the adoption of a policy of justice and humanity cowards our dumb brother-jivas of the brute creation. Knowing, as I fully did, the Swami's views on this question, I was not surprised to learn that, while in America he had been in the habit of taking animal food, and I think he treated with silent contempt the denunciations and calumnies directed against him on this account.
The Swami visited the Dewan by appointment one evening, when this same subject somehow cropped up, and the Dewan held views identical with mine and even went on to express his views that animals had never been killed, or flesh used in yajnas in ancient times. This led to some little controversy in which the Dewan's son-in-law, the late Mr. A. Rainier, who was then his secretary, took sides with the Swami, so far as the use of flesh in yajnas was concerned. The Swami had also some little talk with the Dewan on the subject of bhakti. How the subject came in or what were the details of the Swami's conversation has clean dropped out of my memory. Mr. Sankara Subbier, the Dewan, was one of the most learned men of his time and even at his advanced age — for he was then 58 — was a voracious reader of books of all sorts, and daily adding to the vast stores of his knowledge. The Swami, however, was not much impressed, nor could the Dewan spare time for a prolonged meeting. So we took our leave. As the Swami parted, the Dewan assured him that every want to wish of his would be attended to, and every attention paid to him throughout the State, wherever he might go. The Swami, however, wanted nothing and asked for nothing.
I have above referred to a visitor detaining the Swami one morning from his usual visit to his Bengali countryman, Mr. Bhattacharya. This visitor was the Assistant Dewan or Peshkar in the Huzoor office, Trivandrum, one Mr. Piravi Perumal Pillay. He seemed to have come on purpose to ascertain what the Swami knew of various cults and religions in India and elsewhere, and began by putting forward various objections to the Advaita Vedanta. He soon found out that the Swami was a master from whose stores it was more important to draw what one could for inspiration without toss of time than to examine what were the depths and heights in which his mind could range. I have seen the Swami exhibit on this occasion (as on another during his famous sojourn of nine days at Castle Kernan on the Madras Marina in March 1897) his rare power of gauging in a moment what is the menial reach of a self-confident visitor, and then turning him unconsciously away to ground suitable to him and then giving him the benefit of his guidance and inspiration. On the present occasion, the Swami happened to quote from Lalita Vistara some verses descriptive or Buddha's vairagya (dispassion), and in such an entrancingly melodious voice that the visitor's heart quite melted, and he speedily fell into a passive listening mood, which the Swami skilfully utilized to carry home to his mind a lasting impression of Buddha's great renunciation, his unflinching search after truth, his final discovery of it and his unwearied ministry of forty-five years among men and women of all castes, ranks, and conditions of life. The discourse occupied nearly an hour, and at its close the Swami's visitor was so visibly affected and acknowledged himself as feeling so much raised for the time being above the sordid realities and vanities of life, that he made many devout prostrations at the Swami's feet and declared when leaving, that he had never seen his like and would never forget the discourse which had impressed him greatly.
During this and the following days various topics came up, upon which I had the pleasure of knowing the Swami's views. Many of these have passed out of my recollection. but two of them come home to me with more or less vividness just at present. Once I happened to ask him to deliver a public lecture. The Swami said that he had never before spoken in public and would surely prove a lamentable and ludicrous failure. Upon this I inquired how, if this were true, he could face the august assembly of the Parliament of Religions at Chicago at which he told me he had been asked by the Maharaja of Mysore to be present as the representative of Hinduism. The Swami gave me a reply which at the time seemed to me decidedly evasive, namely, that if it was the will of the Supreme that he should be made His mouthpiece and do a great service to the cause of truth and holy living, He surely would endow him with the gifts and qualities needed for it. I said I was incredulous as to the probability or possibility of a, special intervention of this kind, as, even though I had at this time much faith in the central and fundamental verities of Hinduism, I had not studied its source-books and had not obtained an insight into their rationale, nor even had so much of a practical realization of those verities as would enable me to perceive the truth underlying a statement like the one made by the Swami. He at once came down on me with a sledge-hammer stroke, denouncing me as one who, inspite of my apparent Hindu orthodoxy so far as my daily observances and verbal professions went, was at heart somewhat of a sceptic, because I seemed to him prepared to set limits of my own to the extent of the Lord's power of beneficent interposition in the affairs of the universe.
On another occasion, too, some difference of opinion existed in regard to a question of much importance in Indian ethnology. The Swami held that wherever a Brahmin was found with a dark skin, it was clearly a case of atavism, demonstrating the descent of a characteristic due to Dravidian admixture. To this I replied that colour was essentially a changeable feature in man and largely dependent on such conditions as climate, food. the nature of the occupation as entailing an outdoor or indoor life, and so on. The Swami combated my view and maintained mat the Brahmins were as much a mixed race as the rest of mankind, and that their belief in their racial purity was largely founded on fiction. I quoted high authority — C.L. Brace and others — against him in regard to the purity of Indian races, but the Swami was obdurate and maintained his own view.
I must get on rapidly to the close. But I must not fail to mention the fact that during all the time he stayed, he took captive every heart within the home. To every one of us he was all sweetness, all tenderness, all grace. My sons were frequently in his company, and one of them still swears by him and has the most vivid and endearing recollections of his visit and of his striking personality. The Swami learnt a number of Tamil words and took delight in conversing in Tamil with the Brahmin cook in our home. It hardly seemed as if there was a stranger moving in our midst. When he left, it seemed for a time as if the light had gone out of our home.
Just as he was about to leave, accompanied by his Bengali companion, Mr. Bhattacharya — it was on the 22nd December 1892 — an incident happened which is worth recording. Pandit Vanchisvara Shastri — a master of that most difficult branch of learning, Sanskrit grammar, and highly honoured by all who knew him for his piety, learning, and modesty — was a dependent of the first Prince ofTravancore, who, at my request, had secured his services as teacher of Sanskrit to my son. During all these days of the Swami's stay he never once came to my house. As the Swami was leaving, he made his appearance and implored me to arrange for an interview, however short, even if it be of a few minutes's duration. He had heard of the arrival and stay with me of a highly learned Sannyasin from the North, but had been ill and could not come. He was anxious to have some conversation. The Swami and Mr. Bhattacharya I were just then descending the stairs to get into their carriage and drive away, The Pandit entreated me in the most pressing manner to ask the Swami for at least a few minutes's delay. On being informed of this, the Swami entered into a brief conversation with him in Sanskrit, which lasted seven or eight minutes only. At that time I knew no Sanskrit, and so I could not understand what they talked about. But the Pandit told me that it related to some knotty and controverted point in vyakarana (grammar) and that, even during that brief conversation, the Swami showed that he could display his accurate knowledge of Sanskrit grammar and his perfect mastery of the Sanskrit language.
With this the Swami's stay of nine days had come to a close. In my recollection of today, it seems to be somewhat of a nine days' wonder; the impression is one which never can be effaced. The Swami's towering personality and marvellous career must be said to mark an epoch in history whose full significance can become discernible only in some distant future time. But to those who have had the privilege of knowing him intimately, he seems to be only comparable to some of those immortal spiritual personages who have shed an undying lustre on this Holy Land. It is very pleasant to have recorded these personal reminiscences, meagre as they are, and even though they can add little or nothing to our knowledge of the Master, who enchanted and enchained the heart of human society in the East and in the West in his time and generation.
(The Life of Swami Vivekananda, first edition,
Courtesy: Partha Sinha
- www.vivekananda.net edited by Frank Parlato Jr.