If you were to make a collection of the great prophets and preachers in the history of the various world religions, you might very well find Swami Vivekananda’s life and teachings among the simplest to understand. But just there is our first reason for calling him paradoxical: both his life and teachings are deceptively simple; in reality they are crowded with apparent contradictions, which is what we call a paradox.
Let us look at some of the more outstanding and evident anomalies in the Swami’s life and thought, not only in order to try to comprehend just what was going on in him, but also to try to get ourselves better acquainted with him generally.
There was nothing prosaic about Vivekananda. Referred to in newspapers as the “Cyclonic Hindu,” he was a dynamo of energy — not restless, but controlled. He came to bring peace and a sword, and was at the eye of many a storm. Praised and cursed, lionized and ostracized, loyally followed and shabbily betrayed, Swamiji in his brief thirty-nine years experienced all the vicissitudes to which a public figure can be exposed ; and he held aloft above it all, the message of a prophet, the mission of a prince and the character of a saint.
The first paradoxical aspect of the Swami’s life to be noted here is the fact that although he was monk par excellence, he was also a dedicated patriot . I should not call his love of India fanatical, but I should call it “fierce;” perhaps equalling any in Indian history. That he was a monk and the embodiment of renunciation and the strict adherence to vows, is obvious to those who know his life. After all, the poem he composed, “Song of the Sannyasin,” was the perfect picture of his own nature — the life-style he preferred above all others when he could obtain it. He was the natural-born leader of Sri Ramakrishna’s monastic band and counted the founding of the Monastery at Belur on the Ganges as probably his greatest work.
But how he loved India! He thought about her future and her welfare and her people, day and night. One night, in the state of New York, a brother-disciple happened to come into his room and discover him lying on the floor, sleepless. When asked why he did not use his bed he replied, “I could not sleep up there in all that comfort, thinking of the millions of my countrymen who have no place to lay their heads.” Page after page of the Complete Works is devoted to his visions and plans for the nation. Jealousy was the national weakness: people would have to learn to pull together if there was to be a nation called India. He did not talk about nationalism in terms of revolution or violent overthrow; rather he believed the Indian people had yet to deserve their political freedom, through the independence of their inner spirit and he would illustrate this with stories of the Rajputs, of the Rani of Jhansi and of Guru Govind Singh, and Sivaji.
Yet of all these heroes, the greatest to him was Buddha. He said, “Buddha is my ishta (chosen ideal).” That calmness, that detachment, that self-forgetful benevolence, the welfare of all creatures. India, he reminded us, must never put politics above religion. “I am no politician,” he warned, “and no one must put political implication to my declarations.” The monk, he said, has no nationality and belongs to no religion. He did not talk about nationality and nation-making; he talked about “man-making.” Yet, says Sister Nivedita, his British Disciple, the resentment he felt at the suffering of his country made him appear to her as one who “wore the armour of the warrior under the habit of the monk.”
How can we absorb this very evident contrast in Swamiji’s life?
Perhaps we can do so with his own great idea of synthesis: that to renounce really means to conquer. Like Sri Ramakrishna before him, he wanted renunciation to be positive, to come through strength and never through weakness. Strong thinking, strong feeling, strong will, were required. “Our ochre robe,” he told Nivedita, “is the robe of death on the field of battle.” He put out his whole heart and soul for his own land but when the time came to drop it, he wrote to Miss Josephine McLeod, “After all, Joe, I am only the boy who used to listen with rapt wonderment to the wonderful words of Ramakrishna under the banyan at Dakshineswar….working and activities, doing good and so forth are all superimpositions.”
In general, this intensity of Swami Vivekananda’s emotion stands over against the rationalism, dispassion and serenity which characterized his behavior, as another of the dichotomies. If one reads his letters and talks, one has a picture of how passionately, how vehemently, this man could feel. “I wouldn’t give a straw,” he said one day, “for the person who is incapable of appreciating a love song.” In that mood he would sing the songs the Gopis sang, or come out with one of the many Persian poems he had memorized in his student days. His great weakness was his own mother: he worried all his life over the grief she had experienced on his account and how he might make up to her for that. When his stenographer and disciple, J.J. Goodwin died of malaria in India, he was all broken up for several days, and he used to lament over the weakness of his feelings for his friends. Most intense of all was his feeling for his Master and the Holy Mother.
A contrast with his impersonality
Yet this is the same person who, during a teaching retreat with Western disciples suddenly announced that he would have to be alone, and went off into the forest, remaining there for ten hours at a stretch. “A leader,” he said on another occasion, “must be impersonal. I see persons giving me almost the whole of their love. But I must not give anyone the whole of mine in return, for then the work would be ruined.” Too much sentiment hurts work, he used to say. In him discretion always came to the rescue and would mercilessly demolish the sentiment which so easily welled up in him. “Often I say strange and angry things,” he told a friend, “yet remember that in my heart I never seriously mean to preach anything but love!” Sri Ramakrishna had called him “outwardly a jnani, inwardly a bhakta.”
In order better to control his all-too-ready sympathies, he would avoid staying in any one place very long. Swamiji used to say to people, about meditation, “strive to realize yourself there without the slightest trace of emotion.” And once again we can find the resolution of this internal struggle in his message to us. This was his prayer for Nivedita: “It is immense power — irresistible — that I pray for you, and, if possible, along with it infinite peace…” To all of us he prescribed the madness of love, but in it no bondage. If people sinned against us, what should we do? We must love them till it is impossible for them to resist us. One suspects that Gandhi must have read that.
Money in the life of Swami Vivekananda
Another paradox was that he was as quick to dispose of money as he was to raise it. Like a child he could gleefully calculate how was coming in through lectures to cover the expenses, and then would forget all about it. In his childhood, his mother would have to lock him up whenever beggars came around, because the boy was likely to hand over to them anything in the house that was valuable. On one such occasion he threw clothes out the window to them. Yet he wanted to accumulate funds — he told Sister Nivedita she would have to go out and raise the money for her school — and he tried repeatedly to get his mother and brothers out of poverty by making special provisions for them from what he could collect.
But money had this tendency to drift through his fingers. It eluded him, as he declared it always would elude a monk. The money for his trip to the West had to be collected by the Rajas and his friends in Madras twice. In fact he several times refused it. The first collection he had distributed among the poor: “Let us test the Lord,” he told them; “if He really wants me to go, all the money will come again.” Of course it did. Then there were certain close friends, such as Miss McLeod and Mrs. Ole Bull, from whom he did not hesitate to beg if necessary. Later, Swami Vivekananda was to be accused of being poor at taking care of money; probably he admired those who handled it well, for he taught that to go from the perfect utilization of material means to their perfect renunciation, was just a short step. If one can do the one, one can manage the other.
One of the more fascinating of the anomalies in Swami Vivekananda is the scintillating interplay of a god-like bent for austerity and asceticism on the one hand, and a very down-to-earth humanness on the other. This is the man who was shocked by the way his Western friends always gave expression to their feelings — of pain, admiration or surprise — yet who, in his letters to the Hale sisters for instance, bubbled over with fun, teasing and jokes of all kinds. He had a superb sense of humor; we may recall his replies when Christians would ask him if the Hindu mothers threw their baby girls to the crocodiles: “Yes,” he replied on one occasion, “and nowadays all the babies are born to men.” One day in America he finished the food on his plate, then picked up the plate and licked it clean. “Oh, Swami!” his hostess exclaimed in horror.
“That’s the trouble with you people,” Swamiji said, “You want to make everything so nice and proper on the outside.” Those were indeed Victorian days.
This is the man who trained his own novices so strictly that he threatened with expulsion a lad who had delivered a letter in person, to a house where women renunciates were living. Yet he had an easy forgiveness, and could declare on another day that asceticism was savagery and fiendish, and spoke of the “torture of religion.” When the diagnosis of cancer was made, on Sri Ramakrishna’s sore throat, at Cossipore, the nature of cancer was not well understood. The doctor had warned the boys nursing him of the danger of contagion. Narendra (the future Vivekananda) came into the room when they were sitting around discussing what to do. At once he picked up the cup of gruel which the Master had not been able to finish and swallowed all of it. This put an end to all the talk and hesitation. Such was the one chosen to be their leader. Yet see how unassumingly he would enter the kitchen of some Western friend and begin to prepare a curry for the devotees, or accept a pipe of tobacco, smoke it and throw all the ashes on the carpet!
Swamiji could tell the devotees in California that the reason for his success at the Chicago Parliament was his lifelong mastery over every form of sexual expression. Still, realizing that Goodwin, his secretary, was living with him in a house full of vegetarians and was not one himself, he had the tenderness to send him out with money to buy himself a restaurant meal. We know that when he visited in the home of Margaret Noble (Nivedita) in Northern Ireland, he went walking one day with her young brother. “My boy,” he said, “it is my religion which has deprived your family of your beef. Come on, let us go to this café and buy you a steak!” In London people would remark on how relaxed and natural he was, just before giving a powerful and mesmerizing lecture; yet the same man would come back from his periodic retreats in such a lofty mood one would not dare approach him.
In attempting to comprehend this particular paradox we may think of two of the Swami’s observations. One is that religion should be the most joyful thing in the world. And the other is that one should look for greatness in the little things of a person’s life — what they eat and wear and how they speak to their subordinates. He looked for and saw both of these in his Master’s life as well.
Swami Vivekananda used simple language in presenting to us the profoundest philosophical truths. It makes us forget or ignore what a scholar he was. It would be an injustice to call his style “popular”: for it was never shallow. It was clear, direct, uncomplicated and appealing. Wherever he went among his own people, the peasants loved him just as much as the statesmen. Boatmen on the river would watch for his return; servants would dispute with guests for the chance to do him service. Swamiji spoke constantly of how the future would belong to “women and the masses”, and described his presentation as an attempt to put the highest Vedantic truths so simply that a child could understand them. This, the speaker who at both Harvard and Columbia was asked to take the position of guest lecturer in philosophy and Sanskrit! We have to realize that he had read widely and so retentive was his memory that he could give the substance of whole pages of his favorite reading — the encyclopedia — or repeat verbatim something he had heard only twice. At Belur Math he urged upon the young trainees the study of the latest researches and critical methods in sciences and letters as well as religion. Because of his popular, unprofessorial style the academic world, East and West, has not appreciated Swami Vivekananda; you would not find his name in the bibliographies of the textbooks on Hinduism, and one is ashamed to say that even great men of the “Hindu Renaissance”, who freely used his ideas and insights, felt, for various reasons, that they could not afford to acknowledge the source.
We come, finally, to that paradox which may be the most important of all, the traditionalist versus the innovator — the orthodox Hindu and the Promethean proletarian. Swamiji was both a preserver of the past and a harbinger of the future; truth for him did not depend on whether it was old or new. You recall that in ancient Greece, mythology told of a monster called Scylla and a whirlpool called Charybdis, with ships having to ply narrowly between the two. Now when Swami Vivekananda returned to India this is what he said: “There are the two great obstacles on our path in India, the Scylla of old orthodoxy and the Charybdis of modern European civilization. Of these two I vote for the old orthodoxyfor the old orthodox man may be ignorant, but he has strength and stands on his own feet.” Yet the Swami himself was in many ways unorthodox. He saw the Indians of his day as chained — by superstitions, by political subjugation, by sheer tamas. He would shock them by crossing the seas, eating food from a Muslim vendor, bringing Western students into high-caste homes, challenging outmoded ideas. He told pupils of a Calcutta art school, “Why do you always have to represent Kali in exactly the same way: same pose, same ornaments, same expression; where is your creativity?” Asked about socialism, the political rage of the day, he replied, “Why not? Let it be tried. Half a loaf is better than no bread!”
With all that, his reverence for the Vedas is extraordinary, beyond question; his respect for and delight in the tirthas, the places of pilgrimage is incomparable; he vehemently upholds homage to the line of teachers, and as a result of his Master’s revelations he finally places himself at the feet of the Hindu gods as well. His conversations were filled with new ideas relating to the problems of man — and particularly of woman — for he was a pro-feminist and deeply dyed with Western humanism; yet he could give this message to the women of modern times: “If, in the midst of your new tasks, in office, school or kitchen, you will remember now and then to say ‘Siva! Siva!’, that will be worship enough.”
Yet again, he said, “I am no preacher of momentary social reform. I am not trying to remedy evils. I only ask you to follow the ways of your ancestors and realize more and more fully the Vedantic ideal. But this must be brought down out of the caves and monasteries and into the huts of the cobblers and fishermen.” And he felt, you know, that it was in America that Advaita could come into its own.
So let me close by saying that if Swami Vivekananda seems to you to be plagued by contradictions, remember, it is as if he were experimenting with different brands of Hinduism, to the very end. He placed the stress where he knew it was needed. “A foolish consistency, ” Emerson reminds us, “is the hobgoblin of little minds.” There was nothing little about Vivekananda. Again, he is paradoxical because Hinduism itself is paradoxical, and he was the embodiment of it.