By John Schlenck
Life is the unfoldment and development of a being under circumstances tending to press it down.¹
Readers of Romain Rolland’s biographies of Ramakrishna and Vivekananda may have noticed that Rolland compares Vivekananda to Beethoven more than once. He says in his preface, “To my Western readers”:²
…I have chosen two men, who have won my regard because with incomparable charm and power they have realized this splendid symphony of the Universal Soul. They are, if one may say so, its Mozart and its Beethoven—Pater Seraphicus and Jove the Thunderer—Ramakrishna and Vivekananda.
Again, referring to Vivekananda, he says:³
His words are great music, phrases in the style of Beethoven, stirring rhythms like the march of Handel choruses. I cannot touch these sayings of his, scattered as they are through the pages of books at thirty years’ distance, without receiving a thrill through my body like an electric shock.
What do Beethoven and Vivekananda have in common? Beethoven was certainly no saint, and although Vivekananda was a good amateur musician, it is not literally his musical gifts that Rolland refers to. Rather, both embodied the same quality of heroic struggle and triumph. And both were driven by something greater than themselves. Beethoven was driven by a musical impulse so strong, a genius so compelling, that it could brook no rival in his life. Vivekananda, one may say, was driven by Ramakrishna, who would not let him rest in the superconscious state, but forced him to forgo his own bliss and fulfillment in the divine realm by sacrificing himself on the altar of human upliftment.
In both lives, difficulties and obstacles were transmuted into overwhelming triumph. Their struggles and achievements provide inspiration to men and women everywhere.
Beethoven’s greatest difficulty, greater than his unhappy, abusive childhood or the lack of human affection, was his steady loss of hearing beginning about his twenty-sixth year. For a musician, especially one as totally focused as Beethoven, can there be a greater calamity? Twice in his life, when despair seemed about to overwhelm him, a great creative surge burst forth, propelling him to new heights. In the fall of 1802, in his thirty-second year, depressed by his loss of hearing, he wrote a letter to his brothers, known as the Heiligenstadt Testament, which was found among his belongings after his death, apparently never sent. In this he wrote what seemed to be a last testament. It is pretty clear that thoughts of suicide had been going through his mind. He rejected that option for the sake of his art, and a year later composed his magnificent Eroica (Heroic) Symphony, a revolutionary work both in its formal scope and in its expressive content. The classical symphony of Mozart and Haydn was transformed into a powerful vehicle of human expression, which left its mark on all subsequent music.
The heroism expressed in this landmark composition was ostensibly a tribute to Napoleon, whom Beethoven admired greatly as the torchbearer of the new democratic ideals of the French Revolution. The following year, when Napoleon declared himself Emperor, betraying the ideals Beethoven admired so much, the composer tore up the title page of the symphony, on which he had dedicated the work to Napoleon.⁴ But the struggle and triumph expressed in this work really represented Beethoven’s triumph over his own difficulties and the despair of the preceding year.
His second great creative surge occurred nearly twenty years later, after some seven or eight years of creative dryness—a musical “Dark Night of the Soul.” This was compounded and at least partially caused by personal unhappiness and frustration: a failed love affair and a long custody battle over his nephew. But suddenly, around 1820, Beethoven entered his great “late” period, culminating in his transcendent Ninth Symphony, the Missa Solemnis, and the late piano sonatas and string quartets. Again, the power of his creative impulse, welling up like a volcano, overcame his private difficulties and carried him to new heights.
The Ninth Symphony, possibly the supreme work of Western classical music, progresses from heroic struggle to transcendent joy. The conclusion of the work is so intense and joyful that it seems to convey religious ecstasy. The last movement, the “Ode to Joy”, set to Schiller’s poem, employs a chorus and vocal soloists, a radical departure in the symphonic form, which had been purely instrumental up to that time. It is a hymn to universal brotherhood and divine joy. Beethoven was not formally religious, but he was idealistic. On his desk was the motto: “I am all that was, that is, and that will be.” This may reflect the influence of Indian thought, which was just beginning to be felt in Germany. One feels in Beethoven’s music the spirit of Vivekananda, the strength that Swamiji embodied and taught.
Even with regard to the creative process itself, Beethoven often had to struggle to bring forth his art. Unlike Mozart, whose music seemed to flow forth effortlessly, with little or no editing, Beethoven worked hard to achieve his artistic vision. His surviving sketches show that he often began with mediocre ideas, revising, polishing, chiseling them until he got them right. His genius could give him no rest until it achieved perfect expression. And through that struggle he achieved a profundity that, at its best, surpassed Mozart.
Here also one can see a parallel with Vivekananda. No doubt Swamiji felt at times that Ramakrishna was guiding his every step. But at other times, he had to put forth great conscious effort to work out his plans and ideas.
After traveling the length and breadth of India for three years, mostly on foot, Vivekananda saw both the glory and the degradation of India. By his great revelation at Kanyakumari, he saw the direction his mission in India must take. But how to carry it out? He came to America mainly to seek material support for his work in India. But over the course of his first year and a half in America, he became convinced that he also had a mission to the West. This posed a tremendous challenge. As he wrote to a disciple in India:
…to put the Hindu ideas into English and then make out of dry philosophy and intricate mythology and queer startling psychology, a religion which shall be easy, simple, popular, and at the same time meet the requirements of the highest minds— is a task only those can understand who have attempted it. The dry, abstract Advaita must become living— poetic— in everyday life; out of hopelessly intricate mythology must come concrete moral forms; and out of bewildering Yogi-ism must come the most scientific and practical psychology— and all this must be put in a form so that a child may grasp it. That is my life’s work. The Lord only knows how far I shall succeed.5
His success in gaining respect for Hinduism in America—at the Parliament of Religions and afterward—stirred up great enthusiasm in India, with almost a national delirium on his return. But how could he transform that enthusiasm into practical work for the regeneration of his country? Even some of his brother disciples thought he was straying from the message of their Master. His struggle, both in the West and on his return to India, shattered his health, but some truly remarkable people flocked to his standard, and he was able to found the Ramakrishna Mission in 1897 and Belur Math the following year. A solid foundation had been laid. Hinduism had been given a vital new direction, and India would emerge from her slumber.
Vivekananda’s struggles differed from Beethoven’s, but with both one senses a great, transpersonal force that overrode personal considerations. Their lives were not meant for personal joy or satisfaction, but served as vehicles for something much greater.
Early on, Vivekananda felt a strong impulse toward monastic self-abnegation. His search for truth could not rest satisfied with conventional wisdom or ordinary human success. His hunger for direct and immediate awareness of the divine led him to Ramakrishna, who at once saw his extraordinary potential. Vivekananda’s discipleship was often stormy; he recalled later, “I fought my Master for six long years, with the result that I know every inch of the way!”⁶ And Ramakrishna never resented that fight; rather, he welcomed it. He knew that it indicated Vivekananda’s unflinching honesty and intense yearning for truth.
But as Vivekananda challenged Ramakrishna, so did Ramakrishna challenge Vivekananda. When, after Swamiji experienced divine truth, he wanted to remain immersed in that bliss, Ramakrishna scolded him for his “ordinariness” and foresaw that the disciple would afterward become a great banyan tree giving shelter to countless multitudes. Vivekananda’s life was not about his own fulfillment. He would be the instrument of his Master’s mission.
Much of the beauty of Vivekananda’s life lies in this creative tension between the urge to return to his “own abode” and the inexorable pull of his commission. He could have, and if Ramakrishna had allowed him to do so, might have remained absorbed in samadhi, perhaps in a quiet mountain hermitage. He yearned to do this, but every time he tried to retreat into meditative solitude he was forced to return to the world of human struggle and suffering.
Let us try to imagine what this means. Vivekananda had realized the highest truth—that human beings in essence are divine, perfect in existence, knowledge and bliss. Ordinary spiritual seekers struggle through many years (or lives) to realize this truth, which satisfies and fulfills all human yearnings. Imagine reaching that goal and then being forced to come back down to the plane of suffering, striving and death. My teacher, Swami Pavitrananda, once said, “For a soul like Swami Vivekananda, to take on a human body is itself a crucifixion.”
Through the experience of his own life, Vivekananda came to understand, to appreciate, and to extol the life of struggle and self-sacrifice as a test of true spirituality. He wrote to Margaret Noble (later Sister Nivedita) in 1896:
Who will give the world light? Sacrifice in the past has been the Law, it will be, alas, for ages to come. The earth’s bravest and best will have to sacrifice themselves for the good of many, for the welfare of all. Buddhas by the hundred are necessary with eternal love and pity… Awake, awake, great ones! The world is burning with misery. Can you sleep? Let us call and call till the sleeping gods awake…⁷
Vivekananda’s view of life, and of humanity, was heroic. He exhorted:
Never mind failures; they are quite natural, they are the beauty of life, these failures. What would life be without them? It would not be worth having if it were not for struggles. Where would be the poetry of life? Never mind the struggles, the mistakes. I never heard a cow tell a lie, but it is only a cow—never a man. So never mind these failures, these little backslidings; hold the ideal a thousand times, and if you fail a thousand times, make the attempt once more.⁸
To a disciple he wrote:
Struggle, struggle, was my motto for the last ten years. Struggle, still say I. When it was all dark, I used to say, struggle; when light is breaking in, I still say, struggle. Be not afraid, my children. Look not up in that attitude of fear towards that infinite starry vault as if it would crush you. Wait! In a few hours more, the whole of it will be under your feet. Wait, money does not pay, nor name; fame does not pay, nor learning. It is love that pays; it is character that cleaves its way through adamantine walls of difficulties.⁹
Again, to the same disciple:
Onward! Upon ages of struggle a character is built. Be not discouraged. One word of truth can never be lost; for ages it may be hidden under rubbish, but it will show itself sooner or later. Truth is indestructible, virtue is indestructible, purity is indestructible. Give me a genuine man; I do not want masses of converts. My son, hold fast! Do not care for anybody to help you. Is not the Lord infinitely greater than all human help? Be holy—trust in the Lord, depend on Him always, and you are on the right track; nothing can prevail against you.¹⁰
Indeed, Vivekananda went so far as to say:
It is not truth, but development, that is the great aim. The struggle is the great lesson. Mind you, the great benefit in this life is struggle. It is through that we pass. If there is any road to Heaven, it is through Hell. Through Hell to Heaven is always the way. When the soul has wrestled with circumstance and has met death, a thousand times death on the way, but nothing daunted has struggled forward again and again and yet again—then the soul comes out as a giant and laughs at the ideal he has been struggling for, because he finds how much greater is he than the ideal. I am the end, my own Self, and nothing else…¹¹
Reading these sayings, one can share the exaltation Romain Rolland felt on reading them, and feel with him that they are great music.
Does it trivialize religion to compare a great saint or an Incarnation with a great artist? Can Christ be compared to Shakespeare? In reply one can say that art and religion are different aspects of human life, but for fullness of development, both are necessary. Indeed, both are intrinsic to human nature. Their presence, evident in the earliest human records—cave paintings and other artifacts from tens of thousands of years ago—is what distinguishes humans from other forms of life. I remember how thrilled I was some years ago to hear music played on a 32,000-year-old flute, part of an exhibit of Cro-Magnon art and artifacts at the American Museum of Natural History in New York.
Ramakrishna and Vivekananda both valued art. Vivekananda said:
There must be Art in everything… The difference between architecture and building is that the former expresses an idea, while the latter is merely a structure built on economical principles. The value of matter depends solely on its capacities of expressing ideas.
The artistic faculty was highly developed in our Lord Shri Ramakrishna, and he used to say that without this faculty none can be truly spiritual.¹²
Ramakrishna himself once said: “He who sings well, plays well on a musical instrument, or has mastered any one art, has in him real substance and the power of God.¹³” Krishna says in the Gita: “Whatever in this world is powerful, beautiful, or glorious, that you may know to have come forth from a fraction of my power and glory.” (10:41) In paraphrase one could say: To the extent that art expresses power, beauty or glory, it partakes of the divine.
Great music can take us beyond ourselves. Through it, we can glimpse a realm of ideal form, beauty and meaning; we can go beyond the drabness and pettiness of ordinary life. But for that glimpse to truly transform our lives, spiritual grounding—ongoing spiritual effort—is necessary. Art by itself is not enough.
¹ The Life of Swami Vivekananda by His Eastern and Western Disciples, (Calcutta: Advaita Ashrama, 1979), Vol. I, p. 281.
² Romain Rolland, The Life of Ramakrishna (Calcutta: Advaita Ashrama, 1947), p. 8.
³ Romain Rolland, The Life of Vivekananda and the Universal Gospel (Calcutta: Advaita Ashrama, 1947), p. 162.
⁴ This incident was recorded by Beethoven’s student and assistant, Ferdinand Ries.
⁵ Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda (Calcutta: Advaita Ashrama, 1979), V: 104-105.
⁶ The Master as I Saw Him, from The Complete Works of Sister Nivedita, Vol. I (Calcutta: Sister Nivedita Girls School, 1967), p. 22.
⁷ CW of Vivekananda, VII: 501.
⁸ CW, II: 152.
⁹ CW, IV: 367.
¹⁰ CW, V: 57.
¹¹ Ibid., 252.
¹² Ibid., 259.
¹³ The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna, tr. by Swami Nikhilananda (New York, Ramakrishna-Vivekananda Center, 1942), p. 561.
JOHN SCHLENCK, a composer of music, is Associate Editor of American Vedantist and Secretary-Treasurer of Vedanta West Communications. He is a resident member and Secretary of the Vedanta Society of New York.