EARLY in November 1935, I landed in Calcutta and set foot for the first time on the soil of India. As I left my home in the United States of America journeying westward to encircle the globe, I thought of myself as a tourist in the different countries through which I passed. Only when I reached India did I in thought become a pilgrim. As a pilgrim I went the day after landing to the Belur Math on the farther side of the Ganga to bow my head in reverence before the tomb of the great Swami Vivekananda. In the upper room of the guest-house I met Miss Josephine MacLcod, his devoted friend. I also met several of the resident Swamis. When to each of them I said that I had once known Swami Vivekananda, their eagerness to hear of that far-off meeting surprised me. It was indeed to me one of the most vital influences of my life, but could it mean anything to others? Since they assured me that it was so, I am setting down my recollections of those two days, now 42 years ago, when I came under the influence of that great man.
In September 1893, at the World’s Fair held in Chicago to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the discovery of America by Columbus, a Parliament of Religions was a part of the programme. To this journeyed the then unknown young Hindu monk, Swami Vivekananda. His power over the audiences who heard him set forth his universal Gospel and the magic of his personality are common knowledge.
At the close of the Parliament, in order to be independent of the personal benefactions of his admirers, the Swami engaged with a Lecture Bureau to tour the States beginning with the East, and early in November he came to the town of Northampton, Massachusetts. This charming old town, half-way between New York and Boston, and since prominent as the home of Calvin Coolidge, is situated on low hills in the Connecticut Valley just before the river plunges into the gap between Mt. Tom and Mt. Holyoke. In flood seasons the low-lying meadows about the town shine with the covering waters, and the purple outline of the Mt. Holyoke range forms the horizon to the south. Stately elm trees border the streets, and the place had then a slumberous aspect except when an eruption of students woke it to animation. For a women’s college formed the centre of its intellectual life, Smith College, founded in 1875 by Sophia Smith for the higher education of women.
To this College I went as a freshman in the fall of 1893, an immature girl of eighteen, undisciplined but reaching out eagerly for the things of the mind and spirit. Brought up in a sheltered atmosphere, in the strictest Protestant Christian orthodoxy, it was with some misgivings that my parents saw me leave the home and be exposed to the dangers of so-called “free-thinking”. Had not one of my friends gone the year before to Vassar College and was rumoured to have “lost her faith”?
The College dormitories were not large enough to house all of the incoming class, so I with three other freshmen boarded in a square brown house near the campus. This was kept by a lady whose independent spirit and humorous outlook endeared her to us, despite her despotic rule. College lectures for the whole body of students with compulsory attendance were of frequent occurrence, and many well-known leaders of thought visited us.
On the Bulletin for November was the name of Swami Vivekananda who was to give two evening lectures. That he was a Hindu monk we knew, nothing more; for the fame he had won in the recent Parliament of Religions had not reached our ears. Then an exciting piece of news leaked out; he was to live at our house, to eat with us. and we could ask him questions about India. Our hostess’ breadth of tolerance may be seen in receiving into her house a man with dark skin, whom the hotel had doubtless refused to admit. As late as 1912 the great poet Tagore with his companion wandered through the streets of New York looking in vain for shelter.
The name of India was familiar to me from my earliest childhood. Had not my mother almost decided to marry a young man who went as a missionary to India, and did not a box from our Church Missionary Association go each year to the zenanas? India was a hot land where snakes abounded, and “the heathen in his blindness bows down to wood and stone”. It is astonishing how little an eager reader like myself knew about the history or literature of the great country. The life of William Carey I had read, had heard of St. Francis Xavier at Goa, but it was all from the missionary standpoint. You must remember “Kim” had not yet appeared. To talk with a real Indian would be a chance indeed.
The day came, the little guest-room was ready, and a stately presence entered our home. The Swami’s dress was a black Prince Albert coal, dark trousers, and yellow turban wound in intricate folds about a finely shaped head. But the face with its inscrutable expression, the eyes so full of flashing light, and the whole emanation of power, are beyond description. We were awed and silent. Our hostess, however, was not one to be awed, and she led an animated conversation. I sat next to the Swami, and with my superfluity of reverence found not a word to say.
Of the lecture that evening I can recall nothing. The imposing figure on the platform in red robe, orange cord, and yellow turban, I do remember, and the wonderful mastery of the English language with its rich sonorous tones, but the ideas did not take root in my mind, or else the many years since then have obliterated them. But what I do remember was the symposium that followed.
To our house came the College president, the head of the philosophy department, and several other professors, the ministers of the Northampton churches, and a well-known author. In a corner of the living-room we girls sat as quiet as mice and listened eagerly to the discussion which followed. To give a detailed account of this conversation is beyond me, though I have a strong impression that it dealt mainly with Christianity and why it is the only true religion. Not that the subject was the Swami’s choosing. As his imposing presence faced the row of black-coaled and somewhat austere gentlemen, one felt that he was being challenged. Surely these leaders of thought in our world had an unfair advantage. They knew their Bibles thoroughly and the European systems of philosophy, as well as the poets and commentators. How could one expect a Hindu from far-off India to hold his own with these, master though he might be of his own learning? The reaction to the surprising result that followed is my purely subjective one, but I cannot exaggerate its intensity.
To texts from the Bible, the Swami replied by other and more apposite ones from the same book. In upholding his side of the argument he quoted English philosophers and writers on religious subjects. Even the poets he seemed to know thoroughly, quoting Wordsworth and Thomas Gray (not from the well-known Elegy). Why were my sympathies not with those of my own world? Why did I exult in the air of freedom that blew through the room as the Swami broadened the scope of religion till it embraced all mankind? Was it that his words found an echo in my own longings, or was it merely the magic of his personality? I cannot tell, I only know that I felt triumphant with him.
In speaking with a Swami… at the Belur Math, he said that to him Swami Vivekananda personified Love. To me that night he personified Power. I think that I can explain this from my later knowledge. No doubt these great men of our college world were narrow-minded, of closed convictions, “wise in their own conceits”. How could they accept the saying “Whosoever comes to Me through whatsoever form, I reach him”? At Chicago the Swami had recently felt the rancour of Christian missionaries, and undoubtedly his accents took on an austerity as he felt the same spirit in these representatives of Western learning. To them Love would not appeal, but Power can awe even when it does not force agreement. The discussion, beginning with the utmost courtesy-became less cordial, then bitterness crept in, a resentment on the part of the champions of Christianity as they felt that it was “thumbs down” for them. And truly it was. The repercussion of the triumph that filled me then is with me to this day.
Early the next morning loud splashings came from the bathroom, and mingling with them a deep voice chanting in an unknown tongue. I believe that a group of us huddled near the door to listen. At breakfast we asked him the meaning of the chant. He replied. “I first put the water on my forehead, then on my breast, and each time I chant a prayer for blessings on all creatures”. This struck me forcibly. I was used to a morning prayer, but it was for myself first that I prayed, then for my family. It had never occurred to me to include all mankind in my family and to put them before myself.
After breakfast the Swami suggested a walk, and we four students, two on each side, escorted the majestic figure proudly through the streets. As we went, we shyly tried to open conversation. He was instantly responsive and smiled showing his beautiful teeth. I only remember one thing he said. Speaking of Christian doctrines, he remarked how abhorrent to him was the constant use of the term “the blood of Christ”. That made me think. I had always hated the hymn “There is a fountain filled with blood, drawn from Emmanuel’s veins”, but what daring to criticize an accepted doctrine of the Church! My “free-thinking” certainly dates from the awakening given me by that freedom-loving soul. I led the conversation to the Vedas, those holy books of India he had mentioned in his lecture. He advised me to read them for myself, preferably in the original. I then and there made a resolve to learn Sanskrit, a purpose which I regret to say I have never fulfilled. Indeed as far as outward result goes, I am a case of the good seed choked by thorns.
One rather humorous outcome of this advice about the Vedas should not be omitted. The following summer a pretty little Guernsey calf was added to the family livestock, and when my father gave it to me. I named it “Veda”. Unfortunately the little one only lived a few months and my father said its name had killed it.
Of the succeeding lecture I can say nothing. The great Swami left us and I never saw him again. I even lost sight of his journeyings through our country and did not know that he made another visit to it two years later. And yet those two days of his mighty presence have certainly coloured all the rest of my life. I wrote to my family a detailed account of this visit, expressing myself so strongly that my devoted but over-solicitous father became alarmed. He pictured me leaving the faith of my fathers and becoming a disciple of the Swami. He used argument and ridicule, and to spare him further anxiety — for I adored my father — I stopped talking of my new thoughts, and kept them to myself.
I often think of the time I have lost, of the roundabout way I have come, groping my way, when under such guidance I might have aimed directly for the goal. But for an immortal soul it is wiser not to spend time in regrets, since to be on the way is the important thing.
One reads of the seeds found in Egyptian sarcophagi, buried thousands of years previously and yet retaining enough vitality to sprout when planted. Lying apparently lifeless in my mind and heart, the far-off memory of that great apostle from India has during the past year begun to send forth shoots. It has at last brought me to this country. During the intervening years — years of sorrow and responsibility and struggle mingled with joy — my inmost self has been trying out this and that doctrine to see if it was what I wanted to live by. Always some dissatisfaction resulted. Dogmas and rituals, made so important by orthodox believers, seemed to me so unimportant, so curbing that freedom of the spirit that I longed for.
I find in the universal Gospel that Swamiji preached the satisfaction of my longing. To believe that the Divine is within us, that we are from the very first a part of God, and that this is true of every man. what more can one ask? In receiving this, as I have on the soil of India, I feel that I have come Home.
(Prabuddha Bharata, September 1936)