Introduced to Swami Vivekananda

By Swami Yogeshananda

It was 1943 when I came upon a writing of Swami Vivekananda. We were four men encamped in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, out on a small plain enticingly called Poison Flat, when Joe Brown came by on horseback with the mules and our food and supplies for the coming week.

Swami Vivekananda in California 1900

Swami Vivekananda in California 1900

“You might find these interesting,” he had said, handing me a couple of books. Joe studied in “main camp” with John, a scholar of Oriental texts and esotericism. I had hung around them a bit, curious to learn, but shy. Today he was out supplying our small crew in boot camp. We were fostering the projects of the Forest Service.

The years 1939-1943 brought forth some beautiful books. One that came to me that day was The Wisdom of China and India, its editor the Chinese scholar Lin Yutang. It proved to be the doorway to a new world. Indian wisdom took up the first half of the book, in spite of the title, and here were hymns from the Vedas (Max Mûller’s translations), the complete Bhagavad Gita (Swami Paramananda’s version), and Patanjali’s Yoga Aphorisms translated by Swami Vivekananda. Lin had prefaced these Sutras with several quotations from the Swami and a justification for choosing it for his book: the translation was clear and simple.

Clear and simple; this is the keynote. But who was Swami Vivekananda? Evidently a young man (Swami meant monk), from India who had come to America and left an impression of genius on thousands at the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893, in a “Parliament of Religions.” He had then gone on to teach philosophy, religion, and yoga (whatever that was, exactly — we had a vague idea), in dozens of public gatherings. There was a book about him and his master, Ramakrishna, called Prophets of the New India, by a Frenchman with a rolling name, Romain Rolland, and in our main camp the intelligentsia were talking about it. But Swami Vivekananda’s name seemed against him: “swami” conjured images of mystery more than mysticism, of a jeweled turban and crystal ball, a cartoon character. And Vivekananda — where do you put the stress? And does it have a meaning? At any rate, we all said “Vív-aka-nan-da “in those days.

It would be many years before I was able to realize how adventurous Lin Yutang had been, to include the Swami in his anthology. It may be that he could not guess that the academic community would later eschew even the mention of that name, what to speak of taking seriously his works.

This monk, I discovered, had no concern to be known as a scholar. Many times at the side of his mentor, Sri Ramakrishna, he had listened to those stinging words: “Scholars sound off about everything. But you know, like the vultures flying high in the sky, their eyes are fixed down below on the carrion of flesh and lucre.”

To become familiar with the Swami’s Works is to see at once the breadth of background, the educated, resource-filled mind that produced them — in spite of the elegantly simple English he used for the real impetus of his life, namely, conveying his wisdom to inquirers and inspiring them to find theirs. This young graduate of a Calcutta college had delved deeply into Comte and Mill, Herbert Spencer and the Bible, and had memorized whole pages of encyclopedias with ease. Then in his book Bhakti Yoga he wrote, “We may study books all our lives, we may become very intellectual, but in the end we find that we have not developed at all spiritually. It is not true that a high order of intellectual development always goes hand in hand with a proportional development on the spiritual side….”

That was a surprise. Later, it was a puzzle to me, why numerous reputable academic studies of India, Hinduism or Vedanta, both Indian and Western, scarcely ever mentioned his name. Even the great Professor Radhakrishnan, university chancellor and later President of India, who had undeniably read and used insights of Vivekananda time after time, had not seen fit to acknowledge him. It seems that it would have put such writers into the “wrong” company. First of all, a monk (always suspect?), and then founder of a movement, identification with which must not be risked; a preacher, missionary, polemicist — the “great minds” of the time could not afford, perhaps, any engagement with this one.

But we are getting ahead of our story. This world-wandering monk seemed to have little concern over such neglect. Wasn’t that one of his traits most prized by his Master: indifference to how he looked in the eyes of others? “I want to be a voice without a form,” the Swami said, years later when working in the West. I have pondered what he could have meant: a voice without a form. Any hope he may have had that his personality would drop from sight and his words alone survive, was doomed from the start. Could such a person ever fail to make a strong impression? His physique itself had drawn comment. Were not those words simply an expression of his orientation to the Impersonal which aligned his entire life and thought and which was the object of his worship?

Then when I think of the many ways in which his public utterances have sunk into the collective subconscious and pervaded, mostly unacknowledged, the thought-currents arising in the decades to follow, and his work in the West, I cannot but feel that this wish of his is, in that way, fulfilled.

Not long after leaving the Forest Service’s work in the mountains, I came to Pennsylvania and in a bookshop encountered again Vivekananda’s Yoga Aphorisms. I bought a used copy of Raja Yoga from the set of four little books, covered in red leather, published from a center in New York, and began to read the Swami’s own writing — fascinating, new, expansive. It had an unsettling air of bravado and self-assurance; an air of authority over matters quite unfamiliar, or about which I thought I knew something. It sounded grandiose, inflated — even words like impertinent or presumptuous came to mind. And this is a holy man? The doubts clung to me for some time; I had much to learn.

In Philadelphia my spiritual teacher had called Vivekananda the chief disciple of Sri Ramakrishna; obviously, then, this had to be reckoned with. There was all this about Ramakrishna that was so appealing: that scrupulous regard for truth, the profundity of thought, his smiling and gracious demeanor, the candid purity of his life, the meaning “God” had for him; the attraction was clear, unqualified. And it was with that picture and that ideal persona that I proceeded to California and the monastic life. Years later in India someone said it is well known that some of our men come into the Order drawn by Ramakrishna, others by Swamiji.

The next stop was Trabuco College. Gerald Heard, presiding over the “college,” would pass in review an entire parade of saints and mystics, and was often asked to comment on one or another. Although he had much respect for Sri Ramakrishna, he did not consider him a perfect saint, citing a small incident that, in his eyes, demonstrated a character flaw. He called him “an odd man.” I felt hurt. That showed me how deep already was my identification with Vedanta, and that “the Master,” as the Gospel called him, was to be the Master of my life too.

At the Monastery in San Francisco we found ourselves at once immersed in Vivekananda. We were repeatedly reminded of his two-month stay in the city in 1900. We were made familiar with the houses he had lived in and the speeches he had given (rising there to the pinnacles of his own monistic inspiration). We visited Camp Taylor in Marin County, where Swamiji had “roughed it” for a couple of weeks that summer, and met the incomparable Mr. Ernest C. Brown, nearing eighty, who had been a member of Swami Trigunatita’s monastery and who had heard and seen Swamiji on one of those platforms, and who now lived among us as an unofficial monastery member. At mealtime we read together the Complete Works, and studied them privately as well.

There was no doubt about his being the hero of our abbot, Swami Ashokananda. In the latter’s eyes, Swami Vivekananda was not only our model for monastic conduct, our guide and authority on matters practical and philosophic, he was also the savior of India. But of that, more in a moment. It was not difficult, after all, to understand this point: the way of life Sri Ramakrishna had led was so extraordinary and particularly his own, that we should not and could not copy it. Swamiji was of our species, so to speak, and provided for us the proper paradigm.

Monastery class on the Vedantasara of Sadananda would be punctuated by references to Swamiji’s views and vision. It seemed that Swami Ashokananda had the famous Swami’s every utterance and every known move on the tip of his tongue. His public lectures regularly featured phases of the life or doctrine or vision for the future, of Vivekananda. At that time no one knew that the Swami understood himself to be Swamiji’s disciple.

In the face of all this, this apostle of Sri Ramakrishna, this man some called the new St. Paul, and some, the Warrior Monk, had constantly to be reexamined and reevaluated. Eventually, in exchanges with our Swami the subject of non-violence would come up. Swami Ashokananda, like Sri Krishna, had a place in his sense of dharma for violence if it was needed for self-defense. The same was true, he felt, for a nation. India had suffered so long under the boots of exploiting nations, real rebellion was long overdue. Gandhi’s methods had not worked: an India split into two parts? What a price to pay for “peace”! And then no peace, rather communal strife. Swami had favored the armed resistance of patriot and militia leader, Subhas Chandra Bose.

For me, with my pacifist background, this would have been a lump to swallow, and inwardly I tried to hold my ground, but in the monastic life one discovers many new things. It did appear that only one who has abandoned all claims to the world, with its beauties, bounties and benefits, has the right not to pick up arms. The renunciate goes beyond both the gratifications and the obligations of society. Ultimately the formula “no reaction for sannyasins; self-defense for the householder,” was settled on as the solution. Swami Vivekananda too, had tailored his advice to the needs of each seeker. An old man with a face “full of amiable weakness” asked him what to do when one sees the strong oppressing the weak. “Why,” said he, “thrash the strong, of course!” “You forget your own part in this karma. Yours is always the right to rebel!”

In his book Karma Yoga he had put forward as the highest ideal, non-reaction. But, “Before reaching this…man’s duty is to resist evil; let him work, let him fight, let him strike straight from the shoulder. Then only, when he has gained the power to resist, will non-resistance be a virtue.” Such a position had to be based on some universal principle. In fact the book went on to explain that, in the Indian cosmologies, we are all of us like instruments of three strings, being played upon, as it were, by the forces of the universe—the gunas. Persons in whom tamas (defined as inertia, dullness, darkness, ignorance, perversity and other terms) predominates are at the bottom of this hierarchy. In the middle is rajas (hyperactivity, desire, passion, anger, etc.), which propels those filled with it into much activity, for good or for evil. The top level is called sattva, seen in those who tend to be bright, intelligent, balanced, pure, virtuous, etc.) Those only who have become fully enlightened and free are beyond the pale of the gunas.

It is an impressive schema, reminiscent of the kinds Ken Wilber likes to write about, and in my early days I took it as no more than that: one of the classifications cultures throughout history have devised, to enable the human mind to get a grasp on complexities. There were the yang and yin of China, the extravert, and introvert of the Freudian school, Sheldon’s three somatotypes, and so on. Perhaps it was no more than the speculation of an ancient sage, inherited uncritically. I did not yet understand the history or significance, on physical, psychic, and spiritual levels, of the gunas of prakriti.

But the point here is that tamasic persons, understanding the value and prestige of sattvic behavior, often pass off their passivity and weakness as virtue, to themselves and to the world. This was what Sri Krishna saw in Arjuna. This is why Swami Vivekananda could, on the other hand, call Jesus’ non-resistance sattvic and genuine, for he could have called legions of angels to his aid. He had the power. Vedanta has, then, a formula: use rajas to overcome tamas and sattva to overcome rajas; then if you can, break the bond of sattva too, and reach the state beyond the gunas.

It was a rough introduction. Sri Ramakrishna with all his complexity was “smoother going down.” It takes time to swallow the overwhelmingly broad and pungent thought of Vivekananda. But from it I learned that pacifism is nil without strength, and time has proved to me how strength is everything in the life of the spirit. Swamiji said strength was the medicine for the world’s disease. There is no greater purveyor and exemplar of that medicine in our time.


SWAMI YOGESHANANDA has been an American monk of the Ramakrishna Order for over 60 years. He lived in monasteries in the US, India, and England, before moving to Atlanta in 1992 to reestablish a Vedanta Center there. He is now at Trabuco Monastery in Southern California.

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