IN the year 1893 while I was a student reading in the Presidency College, Madras, I had the good fortune of coming into personal contact with Swami Vivekananda. It was shortly before he left for America to attend the Parliament of Religions at Chicago. He was then unknown to fame but his unique personality attracted a considerable number of people — a good proportion among them being students — to his informal talks. I do not recollect seeing at these meetings any of the leaders of Hindu society in Madras then, but there were students, teachers, second grade officials and vakils. It was after the Swami returned from America in 1897 with a name and a world-wide fame that the leaders and high grade officials and people used to flock in hundreds to listen to his talks and lectures. He was residing then (1893) with Mr. Bhattacharya (a Bengali gentleman, then Deputy Accountant General at Madras) in a house situated at a short distance from the southern end of the Marina. I used to go to this house in the evenings with some fellow students to listen to the Swami. We used to squat in the orthodox fashion very near the Swami on carpets spread on the floor. Vivekananda would smoke while talking. His talk touched on a large variety of subjects. And it was delightful to listen to him.
In those days a knowledge of the ancient Hindu philosophy and doctrines was far less spread among the English-educated Hindus in Madras than now; and there were also far fewer popular writings on the subject. Our great gods in those days were Mill, Herbert Spencer, Huxley, Leslie Stephen, and Haekel. To us theirs was the last word in philosophy, politics, and sociology. And so, Vivekananda’s expositions — logical and trenchant as they were — came as wonderful surprises. We had however, no proper grounding to appreciate his expositions at their true worth. And the prejudices of some of us students in favour of the above-named European writers were hard to break through.
Once Vivekananda explained to us how the modern doctrine of evolution had been anticipated by our sage Kapila. On another occasion speaking of a Personal God and Impersonal God, he tried to show how the position of an agnostic or even atheist was really not one of negation, as they had to believe in continuity — a continuous Principle running through all eternity. The position of the orthodox Christians, he said, was illogical and untenable. An arbitrary and sudden creation of a soul and then its eternal damnation or salvation — it was like “a stick with only one end.”
There was plenty of talk on lighter subjects. His own college days and the pranks that he and his fellow students played on some of their professors; how once they struck work and “went away and smoked”. The stories of “the marvellous” which he told us I distinctly remember. One of these was of a blind man whose memory and sense of hearing were exceptionally acute. When the Swami was quite a young boy, this blind man had once heard him talk and sing. Years afterwards he came one night to a house where Vivekananda was staying. On hearing the Swami sing he at once recognized the voice and asked whether he was not the boy whom he had heard in such and such a year at such and such a place. This blind man while walking in the streets would clap his hands and listening to the sound would say, “Here on my right is a vacant space”, or “There on my left is tall building”, and so on. The other story was of a “magician”, a man (a Mussulman, if I recollect correctly) who had acquired certain siddhis or (so-called) supernatural powers. A European wanted to test his powers, and one evening they drove together in an open carriage of the European to a street in Calcutta. While they were driving the “magician” said to the European, “Now ask for anything you want and I shall give you”. The European thought for a moment and then said, “Give me a bottle of champagne”, knowing that no such thing was in the carriage or anywhere near at hand. The “magician” stretched out his arm clutched at something in the air and brought in a bottle of champagne. Then saying “Now look”, he waved his hand towards the right row of shops in the street and all the lights in that row were put out; while the lights in the opposite row were burning as before. Before the people in the street and shops could quite recover from their surprise, he waved his hand again and the lights in the right row were relit.
I am reminded of another story he told us while on the subject of the rude and at times insulting behaviour of Europeans in India to “Natives”. Naturally, he spoke with much feeling on the subject as every self-respecting Indian would. Once, it seems, a solicitor in Calcutta was rude and insulting to an Indian barrister. The leading Indian clients and lawyers held a meeting and resolved to boycott that particular solicitor. “And from the next day”, said Vivekananda, with an expressive gesture tilting his thumb towards his lips, “the solicitor had to suck his thumb.”
The bare-headed photographs in the book “Swami Vivekananda’s Speeches and Writings”, published by Messrs G. A. Natesan & Co. give a good idea of the appearance of the Swami. But no photograph or description can give a correct idea of the power of his eyes. They were wonderful. Like the “Ancient Mariner” in Coleridge’s famous poem he “held you by the eye”. The voice too had an indefinable attraction. Though not ringing and silvery like Mrs. Beasant’s in her prime, more soft and pleasant like Mr, Norton’s it attracted you and held you. He could sing beautifully. One evening as we were sitting listening to him, a pretty little child — a daughter of Mr. Bhattacharya, I believe — toddled in. He took the child on his lap and sang a Punjabi song. He observed that the song was attributed to Guru Nanak and told us of its origin. One evening, at the time of arati, Nanak went to a temple. The Brahmin priests would not allow him to enter. So, he turned aside and sang this song in which he compares the sky to a silver plate, the stars to little lights — nirajans — in that plate used for arati, the perfumed evening breeze to incense, and so on, reminding us, students, of Moore’s poem which we had read in one of the School Text Books of the time, beginning with the lines:
“The Turf shall be my fragrant shrine,
My Temple, Lord, that arch of Thine.”
In person Vivekananda was not flabby like many of the Bengalis whom we see, but was sturdy and somewhat thick-set. The complexion was brown with a slight coppery hue.
In manners Vivekananda was natural, unaffected and unconventional. There was none of that solemn gravity, measured utterance, and even temper that we usually associate with a sage. At times his manners were somewhat Johnsonian and brusque when he wanted to put down one who had asked a silly question or a question intended to show off one’s knowledge. One hot morning (this was after he returned from America to Madras) at the end of a long sitting when many questions had been asked and answered, a somewhat conceited young man asked pompously, “What is the cause of misery in this world, Swami?” “Ignorance is the cause of misery”, blurted out Vivekananda and rose and closed the interview. On another occasion one in the audience pointed out to the Swami that the view expressed by the Swami on some point of philosophy differed from that of Shri Shankaracharya. “Well”, said the Swami, “Shankaracharya was a man, you are a man, and you can think for yourself.” An orthodox Pandit appears to have had an interview with the Swami and attempted to show off his learning. Speaking of that interview the Swami said. “The fellow who cannot pronounce jnanaproperly has the cheek to criticize my pronunciation of Sanskrit.”
On Vivekananda’s return to Madras from America in 1897, the public reception given to him was magnificent and the crowds which came to greet him were some of the largest. His first public lecture in Madras cannot be called a success as a lecture. But that was due to the overenthusiasm of the crowds, It was arranged for, I believe, in a big circus-tent, but even that was found insufficient to hold the crowds, and the Swami had to come outside and mount a carriage to address the huge concourse in the “Gita fashion” as he said. He strained his voice to the utmost, gesticulated, but it was all no good. The noise and disorder were great and the lecture had to be given up after a short time. The subsequent lecture in the Victoria Hall on “The Sages of India” was a grand success. It was a very impressive lecture marked by a flowing eloquence. When he came to that portion of the lecture which deals with rasa-krida or the love of Gopis to Shri Krishna and explained the true significance of that sublime love, the expression of his face and especially of his eyes was beatific and soul-stirring.
Informal talks in the mornings and answering of questions were arranged for in a pandal put up on the Marina, near the old Capper-House Hotel, somewhere near the site of the present premises of Queen Mary’s College. Now, the leaders of Hindu society in Madras, big officials and vakils and people in hundreds came, and we students found it hard to get near to the Swami. One morning a European lady (a Protestant missionary, I believe) came and spoke somewhat disparagingly of the enforced celibacy of a sannyasin’s life and of the harmful results of the starving of a noble instinct (noble, when rightly regulated). After a short psychological and philosophical explanation of the necessity of celibacy in a sannyasin (which perhaps was not quite appreciated or understood by the lady), he turned to her and said half-humorously. “In your country, madam, a bachelor is feared. But here you see they are worshipping me, a bachelor.”
Here I may mention that once the Swami in a communicative mood made a personal confession. “I am thirty years old now and have never known a woman,”
Once he said to a number of young students in the audience that it was their first duty to cultivate physical strength and health, “You may have the Gita in your left hand but have a football in your right.” He expressed on one occasion the view that it was the men who were physically weak that yielded to temptations easily, and that those with plenty of physical vigour and strength were far better able to resist temptations and exercise self-conirol than the former.
Once referring to himself he said. “There is an ustadunder these robes” (ustad an expert gymnast or a teacher of gymnastics).
At this time (1897, after his return from America) Vivekananda was residing in Castle Kernan, the well-known house on the Marina. When I first went to Madras it was known as the Ice-House; then the late Mr. Biligiri Iyangar bought it as his house; and he named it Castle Kernan after Mr. Justice Kernan. There was a “Kernan -maze” in its compound which some of us students used to take pleasure in entering and getting lost.
In Castle Kernan during these memorable days some of us students were invited, and we ate with Vivekananda, The Swami’s appetite was great and he ate heartily. Once pointing humorously to a dish of ice-cream before him he said. “I can renounce everything excepting this. “At times baskets of fruits sent to him by friends from Bangalore used to arrive. As soon as they would arrive, they would be opened and the contents distributed among those present and the Swami also ate.
Sometimes in the early mornings Vivekananda would bathe in the sea opposite to Castle Kernan along with a number of students.
Informal talks were at times held in the rooms of the Triplicane Literary Society. The late Dewan Bahadur R. Raghunatha Rao and a number of other social reformers including my old Assistant Professor of history, the late Mr. A. Subba Rao (a sturdy social reformer and agnostic) used to attend. Some of the social reformers were snubbed by the Swami and their views and methods criticized. Once when Mr. A. Subba Rao spoke rather disparagingly of the thinking power and views of our old rishis, the Swami remarked that Mr. Subba Rao could have no idea of the power of intense meditation which the rishi had acquired through long self discipline, and added. “You will be burnt to ashes if you think for half a minute like them.”
When one evening the Swami was discoursing on “Faith in God” in the Triplicane Literary Society. Dewan Bahadur Raghunatha Rao broke in a solemn manner. “I have always preached that no nation, no race, no individual who did not believe in God ever became great.” At this some of the irreverent young students smiled in an amused manner.
He spoke of his guru Shri Ramakrishna and some of Shri Ramakrishna’s apparently mad actions undertaken with a view to killing the “self” in him, the significance of which many — especially in Europe and America — could not understand. With reference to ordinary American audiences he said. “If I had spoken of these acts to them, they would have thrown me and my guru into the nearest ditch.”
When the effect of religious beliefs (Hindu and Christian) on the masses came up for discussion. Vivekananda said. “If, like me, you had visited the slums of Europe and America and seen how near to brutes the inhabitants of those slums are, and then compared them with our masses in India, your doubts as to the effect of Hindu religious belief on the masses would have vanished.”
(Vedanta Kesari, May 1927)