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Vivekananda’s physical appearance as described by people who knew him

My memories are simply of him as a guest in our home — of a great personality who is still vivid to me! His brilliant eyes, his charming voice with the lilt of a slight well-bred Irish brogue. His warm smile!

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Reminiscences of Swami Vivekananda – 3rd edition


Reminiscences of Swami Vivekananda

MOST of these reminiscences appeared in periodicals from time to time. They are reproduced with due permission and thanks. The memories of Sister Christine are copyrighted by Shri Boshishwar Sen of Almora. In the absence of a most comprehensive term for the contributors, we have styled them as “His Eastern and Western Admirers”, though some of them are disciples, some friends, and some others admirers. The last writer is rather prejudiced. His article, however, deserved inclusion as depicting a picture not generally known. The articles are printed almost as they appeared earlier. In Sundararama Iyer’s second account, a few paragraphs summarising Swamiji’s Madras speeches have been omitted as these would have been superfluous.

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Mrs. Alice M. Hansbrough

In 1941 Mrs. Alice Hansbrough gave these valuable reminiscences of Swami Vivekananda in a series of informal interviews with Swami Ashokananda in San Francisco. They were recorded by Mr A T Clifton (later Swami Chidrupananda), who was present at the interviews. Marie Louise Burke used portions of these reminiscences in her work Swami Vivekananda in the West: New Discoveries. Swami Chetanananda and a group of Vedanta students have revised and reorganized the original manuscript of reminiscences for publication. It has been made available for publication by courtesy of the Vedanta Society of Northern California.

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Chandrasekhar Chattopadhyay

Swami Vivekananda’s Passing Away

(Translated from Bengali by Swami Chetanananda)

     4July 1902 was a memorable day. Swami Vivekananda, a great prophet of modern India , passed away at about 9:00 pm while he was in meditation. The flame of his life-lamp, which brightened the spiritual world, suddenly blew out in the deep darkness of night. The next morning this sad news spread throughout Calcutta and all over India . Swamiji’s disciple Kanai Maharaj (Swami Nirbhayananda) came to our house in Ahiritola and gave us the news. I was then busy performing worship in a temple nearby. I returned home before 9:00 am to find my mother crying loudly. When I asked why she was grieving, she said, ‘My son, a great calamity has taken place. Swamiji is no more. He has passed away – and you never did take me to see him.’ I replied, ‘Mother, all monks in the monastery are called “Swami”. Which swamiji are you talking about? Perhaps you have misunderstood something.’ My mother answered: ‘Oh no, Kanai came early this morning and said that the head Swamiji passed away last night at nine o’clock. He asked all of you to go to Belur Math.’ I consoled my mother, saying, ‘It is not good to express grief for the death of a monk.’

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Ransome Bransby

Swami Vivekananda at the Los Angeles Home

(From the Unity Magazine, February 1900)

by J. Ransome Bransby.

It was Bransby who invited Vivekananda to be his guest at the Home of Truth, Los Angeles

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Emma Calve

Emma Calve

(From ‘My Life’ by Emma Calve. Translated by Rosamond Gilder)


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Goswami Brij Lal

Swami Vivekananda in Lahore

‘In November (1897) Swami Vivekananda visited Lahore along with his disciples. He was put up in the Haveli of Raja Dhyan Singh at Hira-mandi, where Jagadguru Shankaracharya also had been put up earlier. Goswamiji (Tirtha Ram) and his students had arranged for his lectures also in the same place. There was lot of open space there, even then it used to be so crowded that it was not possible to accommodate all the people. By sheer luck, Prof. Bose’s Circus had come to Lahore then. As there was no alternative, Swamiji’s lecture had to be arranged in the Circus pandal itself.
Goswamiji listened to his lectures with great interest and enthusiasm and inspired others also to listen to him. He became so intimate with Swami Vivekanandaji that he even brought him at his residence for dinner. . . His western disciples also dined there itself. After taking his meals, before parting, Swamiji looked into the personal library of Goswamiji and picked up a book, too.

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Richmond Noble

Younger brother of Margaret Noble, first got an opportunity to spend time with the Swami when he visited England July 31 1899 to August 17 1899.

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Swami Bodhananda

This will be a rather personal affair, nevertheless interesting, to tell you how I first came into contact with the work which had been started since the advent of Sri Ramakrishna.
It was in 1890 that we formed a small group of students among ourselves – most of them, my classmates. We were about eighteen in number and some of them became Swamis, viz., Vimalananda, Virajananda, Atmananda, Prakashananda, Suddhananda and myself. We used to meet together in the houses of some of our friends and talk over religious matters. That year we were studying for our F.A. Virajananda, Vimalananda, Atmananda and myself were students of the same class. In the month of August we heard that Sri Ramakrishna’s deathday was to be celebrated at Kankurgachi. Sj. Ramchandra Dutt was the owner of that Samadhi temple. This gentleman was a distant relative of Swami Vivekananda. He was a great devotee of the Master. He used to celebrate the death anniversary of the Master, unlike us who celebrate the birthday.
Hearing of this celebration, one afternoon I went alone, all the way to Kankurgachi, without speaking a word about this to my friends. It was 5 o’clock when I arrived there. The date of the celebration fell a couple of days hence; but throughout that week there used to be some celebration or other. I was introduced to Rambabu. He received me very kindly and asked me many questions, what I was, whether I was a student, etc. To each of the questions I gave my answer. He then asked my opinion about Sri Ramakrishna, whether I had seen him. I replied, ‘No, I have only heard of him’ – ‘What do you think of him?’ I replied that he was a highly illumined soul. He did not like my remark. You know, he was a bigoted follower of Sri Ramakrishna. So he at once began to explain to me how Ramakrishna was an Incarnation of Vishnu. His argument was that if Ramakrishna was not so, he would not have expressed all the divine powers he had manifested.
He also disclosed to me some incidents of a personal nature – how he got his own mantram in dream, how he told Sri Ramakrishna about it and Sri Ramakrishna confirmed it and told him, ‘Yes, that is your mantram.’ He counted this mantram for several months and one day he came to Sri Ramakrishna, who asked him to return his mantram. Sri Ramakrishna touched him on his chest and said that, he had, from that day forwards taken all his disciple’s responsibility on his shoulders.
I remember now one more incident Rambabu told me. Rambabu was taking some jilipi (sweets) to Guru Maharaj. As he was going to Dakshineswar a young boy came up to him and Rambabu gave him one or two pieces. When he came to the Master, Sri Ramakrishna could not touch the sweets. You know the Master could not touch any food which had been first tasted by others. Now the Master knew what had transpired and so he could not take the impure food.
He told me many other things. It was 6.30 p.m. and darkness was setting. As Rambabu came home he offered me a seat in his carriage. On our way, he told me about the coming anniversary. I spoke to him about our group of friends. He welcomed them too. When I went home and told my friends about the day’s experience, they were all surprised beyond all measure. That night we were all so delighted. We were so jubilant at the idea that Sri Ramakrishna was the Incarnation of this age and that we were all shortly going to witness a festival to be celebrated in his honour. We felt as if we knew Sri Ramakrishna from a long time.
That night we spent in talking about our forthcoming visit. We decided to buy some things to be offered in the temple. As we had no money, we went to different people. Some gave us money and some gave us rice. We sold the rice and used the money to buy sweets. In this connection we went to Iswar Chandar Vidyasagar, famous for his charities. We had a hope that he would give us some money. But we were disappointed. Perhaps he thought that we, young boys, were going to be spoiled in this way. He scolded us saying that we were students and so should mind our studies first. If we wanted to serve saints, we must work ourselves and earn the money and not beg it out! He did not give us any money. However with what little we had, we bought mangoes and sweets and went to the temple. We saw Rambabu about 8 p.m. Afterwards there was keertan (singing). He was very delighted to see us. He told us how he first heard of Sri Ramakrishna. He had first seen an article in a Brahmo paper regarding Sri Ramakrishna. We were fortunate to hear some more reminiscences of the Master.
That day we saw a young man, a relation of Rambabu, going into samadhi. With the progress of the keertan, he became outwardly unconscious. This was the first time we saw a spiritual state practically before us.
We had our supper at 10 p.m. and then we all walked back home that night. The public celebration came the next day. There was a big procession from Simla to Kankurgachi – three miles off – a keertan was accompanying the procession. The keertan parties had been got up after many days’ rehearsal. But we joined the parties without any preparations. The result was that we spoiled the whole performance in a way. At Kankurgachi, there was dancing and singing. The sight was worth seeing. That day there was a service, bhog (food offering) and aratrikam (vesper service), and we partook of the prasadam before we left the place.
We were students of the Ripon College . M. (Sj. Mahendra Nath Gupta, the author of The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna) was a professor in that college. We saw him one day in the College during his leisure hour. He began to talk to us about Sri Ramakrishna. He told us for the first time that instead of going to Rambabu we must frequent the residence of the sannyasin disciples of the Master. We had heard about them from Rambabu, but he did not talk kindly of them. He did not like the sannyas ideal. He believed that Sri Ramakrishna came to this world to emulate the true house-holder’s life. Rambabu thought he understood the Master more than the sannyasin disciples; for he knew Sri Ramakrishna many years before they had met him. M. compared Rambabu to an ordinary mango but ripe; but the sannyasins, when ripe, would be very delicious. He told us that if we must see Sri Ramakrishna’s spirit working in a living form, we must see these sannyasin disciples. He promised to take us to them.
M. used to spend his holidays with the sadhus. One afternoon we accompanied him there. I saw Swami Ramakrish-nanandaji. You know, he had never once left the service of the Master, and had stuck to the spot, even when all his comrades had gone on pilgrimage to different parts of India . He was very vigilant about his daily worship. We were four – Virajananda, Vimalananda, Atmananda and myself. Ramakrishnanandaji asked us what we were doing. Hearing that we were students, he asked us not to neglect our studies. He examined us in our subjects. He gave us prasad and also some offered flowers.
When we were ushered into the shrine, we felt the atmosphere simply transporting – so holy. The shrine room was a very small one. The picture of Sri Guru Maharaj was on the bed. In front of the bedstead were his shoes and urn containing his ashes. We saluted them. Swami Ramakrishnanandaji prayed to Guru Maharaj to bless us that our bondages may be cut off.
From that day we began to visit the Math. Sometimes M. used to take us in his own carriage. M. had told us that even if the swamis asked us to go away, we should not do so, we must go on visiting them continuously. We should seek opportunities to do them some personal service, like shampooing them, or preparing chilum of tobacco for them to smoke, or run errands for them. As we began to visit the Math, Swami Ramakrishnanandaji allowed us some privileges. When the day was too hot, he would ask us to take the fan and fan Sri Guru Maharaj. What a wonderful spectacle it was to see Swami Ramakrishnanandaji serving the Master! Day and night the Swami had no other thought but that of his Lord. If he felt hot, he would get up and fan Sri Guru Maharaj. In fact to him the Master was a living personality, who could be seen, felt and served. His services were very simple. He would get up at 4 a.m., and washing his hands and changing his clothes, he would enter the shrine, raise up the curtain from the bedstead and rouse the Lord from His sleep. He would then offer water for washing. Then the bhog consisting of a few coconut laddus (sweets) would be offered; next tobacco to smoke was offered. He would then sweep the room. He never allowed even his brother disciples to help him. Next, he would collect flowers for worship and then go to the bazaar for buying vegetables. He would select the best the market could offer. He himself would dress the vegetables for cooking. Then he would go for his bath in the Ganges . When he would return to the Math (monastery), he would carry with him a pitcher of holy water for pooja. He would then sit for worship; it was very simple – a few flowers devotionally offered. After the pooja, bhog and prasadam would be given. After the bhog the prasadam was distributed. Now and then he would give us the privilege of preparing sandal paste. We enjoyed all this so much.
I think it was two or three years after this, the Math was removed from Baranagore to Alambazar. We in fact belong to the Baranagore days. Although we had not become sannyasins our hearts and souls were with the monks. I was present on the occasion when the Math was shifted to its new abode. It was then about March or April.
One day Swami Trigunatita took me out for begging; he gave me a gerua cloth. We went about two miles, to several houses. We cried out ‘Hari Krishna’. Some gave us rice, some pice. That rice was cooked for bhog (food offerings), because Sri Guru Maharaj used to say that alms was sacred.
At that time Maharaj and Hari Maharaj were on pilgrimage (Swamis Brahmananda and Turiyananda). I first saw Maharaj in 1895.
We did not meet Swamiji until he had returned from America . I had seen Swamiji before; but that was without knowing who he was. I was a student in a school in which he was the head-master for a time. I was in the fourth class and I used to see Swamiji coming to the school every day. I was impressed by his sparkling eyes, and his ways of moving about. Then Sri Guru Maharaj was living; but I had not known or heard anything about him. I did not know that this, our head-master, was to be our future Swamiji. When he used to come to the school, we could see him from a window – 200 feet from the main street. He used to look about with great dignity and have a book in his hand.
In 1895 Swami Brahmanandaji returned from his tour. He was for the most part spending his days in Brindavan. Maharaja’s nature was like a child’s. His body was as soft as butter. He used to ask us to press his body. In 1896, Holy Mother was living at a house in Bagh Bazar near the Ganges . Maharaj was also with her. Though they lived in the same house Maharaj hardly used to go upstairs to see Mother. Mother used to send fruits and sweets for him: ‘Take these to Rakhal.’ Of Sri Guru Maharaj, he used to talk very little. In fact. Maharaj incorporated into his life much of what Sri Guru Maharaj actually was. His feelings were so deep and intense, that he could not talk anything about him. To him it mattered not if people looked upon Sri Guru Maharaj as a perfect soul or avatar. To him it was enough if people came into contact with Him. I found him, performing worship one day. After Swami Ramakrishnananda left for Madras , Swami Premananda did the worship. One day he was sick and so Maharaj had to do it. In this connection, I remember also the worship which Swamiji performed. He was very particular about meditation. For some months we used to keep vigils. By turns, we used to sit for meditation the whole night and thus the spiritual thought was kept alive. One day when all were meditating about 10.30 a.m. Swami Premanandaji came and requested Swamiji to do the pooja. Swamiji took his seat. He mixed the sandal paste with the flowers and sprinkled the flowers on the altar, urn and shoes and threw the remaining flowers on us who were meditating in the shrine room. To him, Sri Guru Maharaj was a living person. He neither rang the bell nor sprinkled water, nor did prana prathishta. Swamiji saw the presence of Sri Guru Maharaj in his disciples also. So he worshipped them too. What a grand idea of worship! After the pooja was over we all prostrated before him.
We had never heard of Swamiji until the end of 1893. The first letter he wrote was from Japan , to Swami Ramakrishnananda. We received it in August. Until then, we did not know that he was going to America . I was then a teacher away from Calcutta , so I could not come as often to the Math as before. I saw Swamiji in February 1897. That day was Sri Guru Maharaj’s celebration, and I had come away to attend the birthday. Swamiji was then staying in Seal’s Garden House which was two miles away from the Alambazar Math. Without informing anyone, I had come to see him. As I went to him Swamiji had just got up and was washing his face. Swami Sivanandaji introduced me to him. Swamiji said, ‘I will make you a sannyasi, my son; well, can you bring me a glass of water?’ – ‘Yes,’ I replied – ‘I am going to the Math,’ he continued, ‘to initiate Harrison ; (Swamiji initiated him and gave him mantram) I don’t know whether Sashi (Swami Ramakrishnananda) would like it. What do you think of it? You can come with us.’ I replied, ‘If there is no room in the carriage, I can walk.’ But Swamiji said, ‘No, you can sit on the top of the carriage.’ There were G. G., Kidi and Chakravarty. We had hired three carriages. We came to the Math; Swamiji initiated Harrison . Then we accompanied Swamiji to Dakshineswar. There had assembled a record crowd. That day’s public celebration was the last of the kind held in Dakshineswar. People thronged round Swamiji. He made two or three attempts to speak, but the crowd made it impossible for him to be heard. He came back to the Math. That day I enjoyed the privilege of fanning him. But I could not stay there long as I had to attend to my school work.
During the coming summer vacation time I came  back to stay at the Math. It was during these days that the rules and regulations of the Math were framed by Swamiji. One evening he was teaching us Sankaracharya’s philosophy, so nobody could attend the shrine during the evening service. Swami Premanandaji resented this omission and reproached Swamiji for holding up the members. But Swamiji took him to task severely. ‘You see, Baburam, this study is as great as your service in the shrine.’ Swami Premanandaji took to heart Swamiji’s scolding. He was very sensitive and so, after the aratrikam, all of a sudden he disappeared. Everybody felt very anxious for him. So all went out in search of him. After a long time and search we discovered him sitting in a corner on the terrace. Then we made much fun of him. Swamiji then asked him, ‘Baburam, you are my brother. Are you angry with me?’ Hearing these words of Swamiji, he fell prostrate at his feet and asked his pardon for his conduct. Whenever Swamiji would scold anyone, he would soon compensate it by his love.
About that time the discipline of the Math was very rigid. Everybody had to get up at 4 a.m., then meditate and chant Gita. Swamiji asked us to commit to memory ten stanzas a day and recite them before him daily.
In June he left for Almora. At one o’clock he came to Calcutta and before he departed he gave us a talk on ‘The Gita’. Only one verse he explained. It was this: ‘Yield not to unmanliness, O Son of Pritha! Ill doth it become thee. Cast off this mean faint-heartedness, O scorcher of thine enemies!’ (Chapter II, verse 3).
Swamiji told us that the whole secret of the Gita was contained in these words and as he explained the verse, his face became bright with an unusual lustre. Swami Yogananda and Alasinga went with him. From Almora he went to Kashmir . He did not return to us until November.
In 1898 I gave up my position as a teacher and joined the Order finally. Then the Math was already removed to Nilambar Mukerjee’s house in Belur. Swami Saradananda had just returned from America . He used to take two classes, one on the Gita and the other on Bhashyam. Swami Nirmalanandaji was holding Upanishad classes. The classes were held very regularly.
At the end of that year we moved to our present quarters in Belur. Swami Vijnananandaji supervised the work of building construction. Swamiji was present when the Math was moved to its permanent quarters. For a few days he performed the Rudra sacrifice in the yard. In that year we were initiated into sannyas.
In 1899 Swamiji left us for America (and only at the end of December 1900 he came back). This time he took with him Swami Turiyanandaji. Swamiji had a very great respect for him. He used to call him ‘Hari Bhai’. You know Swamiji’s new ideas of work were not received with full sympathy by his brother disciples. But Swamiji used to say that under no circumstances ‘Rakhal’ (Swami Brahmananda) and his ‘Hari Bhai’ would desert him. Of Swami Turiyanandaji he used to say that he was the ornament of the Math. He was full of spiritual lustre. When Swamiji took him to America , he never expected him to deliver lectures. He wanted him to live the orthodox sannyasin’s life and wanted to show to the West the life of an ideal Indian sadhu.
When Swamiji returned from the West, I was in Belur Math. He came without giving us any intimation beforehand. Nobody received any letter or telegram that he was coming. At 11 o’clock in the night he arrived at the gate of the Math. The gate was then closed and locked. He called the gardener; but before he came and opened it, Swamiji jumped over the fence and walked to the Math. In the meanwhile, the gardener ran before him and informed us that a sahib was waiting at the gate. When Swamiji reached the Math building, Swami Premanandaji saw him first and so he shouted out, ‘This is our sahib.’ That night after Swamiji ate his dinner, the whole night was spent in talking. He narrated briefly some of the incidents during his visit to America .
Early next year Swamiji went to Benares . I was then at Hardwar . So I wanted to see him and came down to Benares . I brought some perfumed rice for him from Hardwar . Our ashram in Hardwar was just being started then. Swami Kalyanananda was in Hrishikesh.  He had a small dispensary and men used to come to him for treatment. We lived in tents and had our madhukari (door to door acceptance of food) from the neighbouring villages. I hurried up to Benares to see him. When Swamiji knew that I had come, he sent word, ‘Tell him to come straight up to me. I want to see him in his Hrishikesh dress.’ When he saw me, he very fondly inquired about my health and then about our tapasya and said, ‘I am so glad you have come. One Maharaja has promised to meet the initial expenditure for the construction of an ashram here. He has given Rs. 500/-. Will you take up the work?’ I humbly pleaded my inability to cope with such a work in Benares where there were many pandits who could expound the scriptures with greater ability than my own self. Hearing this plea Swamiji at once remarked, ‘You need not imitate others. I ask you to lead the life and work in your own natural way. Work sincerely and success will surely be yours.’
When Swamiji went back to Calcutta I accompanied him. Swamiji then sent Swami Shivananda and Swami Achalananda to start the ashram at Benares . This was how the advaita ashram of Benares was founded. I remained afterwards with Swamiji till he passed away.
One morning we overslept. He punished us all for this. We were forbidden to take meals at the Math and we were asked to go to Calcutta and beg our meals. He told me that I must not go to the houses of any of my friends. I met Swami Trigunatita at Calcutta . He offered me some money, but I refused it. On my way back at the ghat I again met Swamiji. He enquired after my day’s experience.
It is impossible to describe to you how loving Swamiji was. His broad humanitarian heart appealed most to me. He was a real purushottama (the best of men). Sri Ramakrishna used to say of himself that he was all jnanam within, all bhakti outside. (He, Swamiji, said one day that Sri Ramakrishna, while seeming to be all bhakti was really, within all jnana; but he himself, apparently all jnana, was full of bhakti and that thereby he was apt to be as weak as any woman. (Notes on Some Wanderings with Swami Vivekananda by Sister Nivedita, p.46.)
One day we were accompanying Swamiji for a walk along the Ganges side. When we came in front of Dakshineswar Temple , Swamiji began to talk on Sri Ramakrishna. Very rarely he used to talk about the Master. At every time he used to begin speaking he used to become so emotional that it made it impossible for him to talk. This day he told us that he was all devotion, inside and all knowledge outside, while Sri Ramakrishna was just the opposite. Then in his genial humour he remarked, ‘I have wrecked all the prospects which a promising life held out for me, by being a slave to the love of an illiterate Brahmin priest.’ It is not possible for me to give an idea of his intense love towards Sri Ramakrishna. Swamiji did not describe him as an avatar or popularise the Master as such. He used to say that whether he was an avatar or something more, he did not know! To describe him was to belittle his greatness. Swamiji had an an extraordinary love towards his brother disciples. His veneration for Sri Maharaj (Swami Brahmananda), knew no bounds.
One day the Marwaries of Calcutta held a picnic on the banks of the Ganges in the Math. Swamiji was taking a stroll in the evening along the banks there, and in the presence of so many people, pointing to Sri Maharaj he declared, ‘He is our Raja (King), and we are all his servants.’ Swamiji had an unbounded regard for the personality of Sri Maharaj. He used to say that Sri Maharaj had the raja-buddhi (wisdom of a king) in him. Swamiji knew that Sri Maharaj was the best person to be at the head of the religious order, so Swamiji appointed him as the first President of the Ramakrishna Mission. Swamiji was enjoying tolerably good health. The end came too soon. That day when he gave up his body, he had taken a class on Panini’s Grammar. He had gone out for a long walk in the evening with Swami Premananda. I remember as he came back from the walk we were sitting on the verandah of the Math, around the tea table. Swamiji had mounted the stairs; but he came a few steps down and addressing us said, ‘The malarial season is coming. So those of you who have holes in the mosquito curtains, better have them mended.’ These were the last words I heard from him. He went up and you know how the end came.
Sri Maharaj had gone the previous day to Calcutta on business. Immediately word was sent to him. I remember how his body was trembling when he got down from the boat. He went straight up and catching hold of Swamiji’s feet began to weep like a young child. You must remember that Sri Maharaj had always possessed a strong personality and would never give vent to his emotions ordinarily. This time he was so overpowered with feelings that he held Swamiji in embrace for a long time and he had to be forcibly taken away.
(Reprinted from Vedanta Kesari, September 1972)

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John Lincoln Blauss

The writer disturbed by the influence Vivekananda had on the Ethical Society of Brooklyn wrote a letter to the editor of the New York Times. He is probably referring to lectures Vivekananda made to this group in late 1894 and early 1895. Dr. Charles Higgins wrote a letter of response to Blauss’s letter.

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