It was soon after they had first met that Sri Ramakrishna asked Narendra this question, and his reply provided the Master with a deep insight into the past, the nature, and the destiny of this remarkable youngster who would later become Swami Vivekananda. In his later years, he himself described this supernormal faculty: “From the earliest times that I can remember, I used to see a marvelous point of light between my eyebrows as soon as I shut my eyes to go to sleep, and I used to watch its various changes with great attention. That marvelous point of light would change colors and get bigger until it took the form of a ball; finally, it would burst and cover my body from head to foot with white liquid light. As soon as that happened, I would lose outer consciousness and fall asleep. I used to believe that that was the way everybody went to sleep. Then, when I grew older and began to practice meditation, that point of light would appear to me as soon as I closed my eyes, and I would concentrate upon that.”
Swami Vivekananda’s life story is that of a phenomenon. He was an ideal yogi and monk, teacher and leader, mystic and ascetic, worker and philosopher. He was capable of the most exalted devotion, yet possessed of the highest knowledge. He was a dedicated humanist, a musician and orator par excellence, and an accomplished athlete. In Vivekananda one catches a glimpse of the perfect man. His guru, Sri Ramakrishna, said about him: “Narendra is a great soul – perfect in meditation. He cuts the veils of Maya to pieces with the sword of knowledge. Inscrutable Maya can never bring him under her control.”
The true nature of his exceptional disciple was revealed to Sri Ramakrishna in vision even before their first meeting. Vivekananda was an ancient sage immersed in deep samadhi [transcendental consciousness], immovable as a rock. Sri Ramakrishna, master of samadhi, awakened that divine being from meditation, giving, as it were, a mighty push to that rock and directing it to course its way across the world, radiating spirituality and destroying narrowness and ignorance wherever it went.
Sri Ramakrishna told his other disciples this much of the visions he had about Narendra: “One day I found that my mind was soaring high in samadhi along a luminous path. As it ascended higher and higher, I found on both sides of the way ideal forms of gods and goddesses. The mind then reached the outer limits of that region, where a luminous barrier separated the sphere of relative existence from that of the Absolute. Crossing that barrier, the mind entered the transcendental realm, where no corporeal being was visible. But the next moment I saw seven venerable sages seated there in samadhi. It occurred to me that these sages must have surpassed not only men but even the gods in knowledge and holiness, in renunciation and love. Lost in admiration, I was reflecting on their greatness when I saw a portion of that undifferentiated luminous region condense into the form of a divine child. The child came to one of the sages, tenderly clasped his neck with his lovely arms, and, addressing him in a sweet voice, tried to drag his mind down from the state of samadhi. That magic touch roused the sage from his superconscious state, and he fixed his half-open eyes upon the wonderful child. In great joy the strange child spoke to him, ‘I am going down. You too must go with me.’ The sage remained mute, but his tender look expressed his assent. No sooner had I seen Narendra than I recognized him to be that sage.” Later Ramakrishna disclosed the fact that the divine child was none other than himself.
Vivekananda was born on January 12, 1863, in Calcutta. From the beginning he was a precocious boy of exceptional energy. Yet his innate tendency toward meditation showed itself even in his early life. For along with the ordinary childhood games, he would play at meditation.
Once Narendra was meditating with his friends when a cobra appeared. The other boys were frightened and, shouting a warning to him, ran away. But Narendra remained motionless, and the cobra, after lingering about for a while, crawled away. Later he told his parents: “I knew nothing of the snake or anything else. I was feeling inexpressible joy”
At the age of fifteen he experienced spiritual ecstasy. He was journeying with his family to Raipur in Central India, and part of the trip had to be made in a bullock cart. On that particular day the air was crisp and clear, the trees and creepers were covered with blossoms, and birds of brilliant plumage sang in the forest. The cart was moving through a narrow pass where the lofty peaks rising on the two sides almost touched each other. Narendra caught sight of a large bee-hive in the cleft of a giant cliff that must have been there a very long time. Suddenly his mind was filled with awe and reverence for the Divine Providence, and he lost outer consciousness. Perhaps this was the first time that his powerful imagination had helped him to ascend to the realm of the superconscious.
Once during his days as a student, Vivekananda had a vision of Buddha which he related: “While at school one night I was meditating behind closed doors and had a fairly deep concentration of mind. How long I meditated in that way I cannot say. It was over and I still kept my seat, when from the southern wall of that room a luminous figure stepped out and stood in front of me. It was the figure of a sannyasin [monk], absolutely calm, with shaven head, and staff and kamandalu [water pot] in either hand. He gazed at me for some time, and seemed as if he would address me. I, too, gazed at him in speechless wonder. Suddenly a kind of fright seized me. I opened the door and hurried out of the room. Then it struck me that it was foolish of me to run away like that, perhaps he might say something to me. But I have never seen that figure since. I think it was the Lord Buddha whom I saw.”
At one of their first meetings Sri Ramakrishna gave Vivekananda the magic touch which banished duality from his mind and gave him a taste of transcendental consciousness. Generally the guru helps his disciple to attain samadhi as the goal of life. But Swami Vivekananda’s guru had much higher expectations of his disciple. Sri Ramakrishna actually scolded Vivekananda for wanting to remain immersed in samadhi for three or four days at a stretch, breaking it only for food. “Shame on you! You are asking for such an insignificant thing. I thought that you would be like a big banyan tree, and that thousands of people would rest in your shade. But now I see that you are seeking your own liberation.” Thus rebuked, Vivekananda shed tears, realizing the greatness of Sri Ramakrishna’s heart.
At the Cossipore garden house, Vivekananda did experience nirvikalpa samadhi – the supreme realization of Vedanta as well as of Yoga. One evening, while he was meditating with Gopal senior, a brother-disciple, he felt as if a light had been placed behind his head. This light became more and more intense, and then he passed beyond all relativity and was lost in the Absolute. When he regained a little consciousness of the world, he was aware only of his head, but not the rest of his body. He cried out: “Gopal-da, where is my body?” “Here it is, Naren,” answered Gopal, trying to reassure him. But when that failed to convince him, Gopal was terrified and hastened to inform Sri Ramakrishna, who only said: “Let him stay in that state for a while! He has teased me long enough for it.”
After a long time Vivekananda returned to normal consciousness. An ineffable peace and joy filled his heart and mind. He came to the Master, who told him: “Now the Divine Mother has shown you all. But this realization of yours shall be locked up for the present, and the key will remain with me. When you have finished doing Mother’s work, this treasure will again be yours.”
Another interesting episode of this period was told by Girish Chandra Ghosh, a householder disciple of Sri Ramakrishna. One day Vivekananda and Girish sat under a tree to meditate. There were mosquitoes without number which disturbed Girish so much that he became restless. On opening his eyes he was amazed to see that Vivekananda’s body was covered as if with a dark blanket, so great was the number of mosquitoes on him. But he was quite unconscious of their presence and had no recollection of them when he returned to normal consciousness.
After the passing away of Sri Ramakrishna, Vivekananda traveled all over India as an itinerant monk. He wanted to find a secluded place where he could live alone, absorbed in the contemplation of God. At this time the words of Buddha were guiding him: “Even as the lion, not trembling at noises; even as the wind, not caught in a net; even as the lotus-leaf, untouched by the water – so do thou wander alone like the rhinoceros!” But Divine Providence had other plans for him, and he could not escape his destiny. As he was to write later: “Nothing in my whole life ever so filled me with the sense of work to be done. It was as if I were thrown out from that life in caves to wander to and fro in the plains below.”
One day during his travels in the Himalayas he sat to meditate under a peepul tree by the side of a stream. There he realized the oneness of the universe and man, that man is a universe in miniature. He realized that all that exists in the universe also exists in the body, and farther, that the whole universe can be found contained in a single atom. He jotted down this experience in a notebook and told his brother-disciple and companion, Swami Akhandananda: “Today I found the solution to one of life’s most difficult problems. It was revealed to me that the macrocosm and the microcosm are guided by the same principle.”
On May 31, 1893, Vivekananda began his journey to Chicago to take part in the Parliament of Religions as a representative of Hinduism. But his message was so universal that one observer commented: “Vivekananda was the representative of all religions of the world.” He proclaimed the supreme message of Vedanta: “Ye are the children of God, the sharers of Immortal Bliss, holy and perfect beings. Ye divinities on earth – sinners! It is a sin to call a man so; it is a standing libel on human nature!”
For the next three years he traveled extensively in the United States and in many European countries. Yet the active life of the West could not disturb his meditation. In Vivekananda we find the two opposing currents of action and meditation flowing harmoniously, never interfering with each other.
Being nearly exhausted by the uninterrupted work of public lecturing and classes, in the beginning of June, 1895, the Swami accepted an invitation from Mr. Francis Leggett to go to Percy, New Hampshire, for a period of rest in the silence of the pine woods. Here also he experienced nirvikalpa samadhi. In a letter from Percy, dated June 7, 1895, he wrote to Mrs. Ole Bull:
“This is one of the most beautiful spots I have ever seen. Imagine a lake surrounded with hills covered with a huge forest, with nobody but ourselves. So lovely, so quiet, so restful and you may imagine how glad I am to be here after the bustle of the cities.
“It gives me a new lease on life to be here. I go into the forest alone and read my Gita and am quite happy I will leave this place in about ten days and go to Thousand Island Park. I will meditate by the hour there and be all alone to myself. The very idea is ennobling.”
In Indian art and architecture, the state of realization, or supreme enlightenment, has been depicted in the meditating form of Buddha, the Enlightened One. This same lofty ideal can be seen in Swami Vivekananda in the memoir of Mrs. Mary Funke, who was one of his disciples:
“The last day [at Thousand Island Park] has been a very wonderful and precious one. He asked Christine and me to take a walk, as he wished to be alone with us. We went up a hill about half a mile away. All was woods and solitude. Finally he selected a low-branched tree, and we sat under the spreading branches. Instead of the expected talk, he suddenly said, ‘Now we will meditate. We shall be like Buddha under the Bo-tree.’ He seemed to turn to bronze, so still was he. Then a thunderstorm came up and it poured. He never noticed it. I raised my umbrella and protected him as much as possible. Completely absorbed in his meditation, he was oblivious of everything. Soon we heard shouts in the distance. The others had come out after us with raincoats and umbrellas. Swamiji looked around regretfully, for we had to go, and said, Once more am I in Calcutta in the rains.’”
One must not forget that Vivekananda, as Sri Ramakrishna had said, was not an ordinary man, but a nitya-siddha, one who is born perfect, an Ishvarakoti or special messenger of God born on earth to fulfill a divine mission. Vivekananda said: “I shall inspire men everywhere, until the world shall know that it is one with God.”
All through his life he practiced concentration so much that it became a part of him. In the West he had to control this precious habit. Sister Nivedita tells us: “On one occasion, teaching a New York class to meditate, it was found at the end that he could not be brought Backto consciousness, and one by one, his students stole quietly away. But he was deeply mortified when he knew what had happened, and never risked its repetition. Meditating in private, with one or two, he would give a word by which he could be recalled.”
While staying at Camp Irving in Northern California, one morning the Swami found Shanti [Mrs. Hansborough] in the kitchen preparing food when it was time for his morning class. “Aren’t you coming in to meditate?” he asked. Shanti replied that she had neglected to plan her work properly, so now she had to stay in the kitchen. Swamiji said: “Well, never mind. Our Master said you could leave meditation for service. All right, I will meditate for you.” Shanti said later: “All through the class I felt he really was meditating for me.”
With the approaching end of his mission and earthly life, Vivekananda realized ever more clearly how like a stage this world is. His eyes were now looking increasingly at the light of another world, his real abode. And how vividly and touchingly he expressed his yearning to return to it in his letter of April 18, 1900, written from California to Miss Josephine MacLeod, his ever loyal “Joe”:
“Work is always difficult. Pray for me, Joe, that my work may stop for ever and my whole soul be absorbed in Mother. Her work She knows.
“I am well, very well mentally. I feel the rest of the soul more than that of the body. The battles are lost and won. I have bundled my things and am waiting for the Great Deliverer.
“Siva, O Siva, carry my boat to the other shore!
“After all, Joe, I am only the boy who used to listen with rapt wonderment to the wonderful words
of Sri Ramakrishna under the banyan at Dakshineswar. That is my true nature – works and activities, doing good and so forth, are all superimpositions. Now I again hear his voice, the same old voice thrilling my soul. Bonds are breaking – love dying, work becoming tasteless – the glamour is off life. Now only the voice of the Master calling. – ‘I come, Lord, I come.’ – ‘Let the dead bury the dead. Follow thou Me. ‘
“Yes, I come. Nirvana is before me. I feel it at times, the same infinite ocean of peace, without a ripple, a breath.
“Oh, it is so calm!”
Sri Ramakrishna had prophesied that Narendra would merge in nirvikalpa samadhi at the end of his work, when he realized who and what he really was. One day at Belur Math when a brother-disciple asked him casually, “Do you know yet who you are, Swamiji?” he was awed into silence by the unexpected reply, “Yes, I know now.”
Vivekananda’s exit from the world was as wonderful as his entry into it. After consulting an almanac, he chose an auspicious day to end his drama. It was the 4th of July, 1902. He meditated for three hours that morning and conducted a class on Sanskrit grammar and Vedanta philosophy for the young monks in the afternoon, after which he took a long walk with one of his brother-disciples.
Of his life’s final moments, Sister Nivedita has left this account: “On his return from this walk, the bell was ringing for even-song, and he went to his own room, and sat down facing towards the Ganges, to meditate. It was the last time. Then on the wings of that meditation, his spirit soared whence there could be no return, and the body was left, like a folded vesture, on the earth.”
Swami Vivekananda’s last words, spoken to a monastic disciple who was attending him, were: “Wait and meditate till I call you.”
Thinking about sense-objects Will attach you to sense-objects;
MEDITATION ACCORDING TO YOGA
Grow attached, and you become addicted; Thwart your addiction, it turns to anger;
Be angry, and you confuse your mind; Confuse your mind, you forget the lesson of experience;
Forget experience, you lose discrimination; Lose discrimination, and you miss life’s only purpose.