A One-Act Play in Four Scenes with Choral Support
by Bill Davis
Music and Selection of Lyrics by John Schlenck
Middle aged trader from North India
Apurva, a sweetmeat vendor
Narrator (may be omitted if play is staged)
Narrator: It is about 1890 in Northern India. Swami Vivekananda and a disciple of his are standing on a train platform before a train.
Swamiji’s disciple: Swamiji, Here’s your train ticket, and please allow me to give you this money to pay for meals along the way.
Swamiji: Thank you very much. I appreciate your kindness. However, I cannot accept the money. I’m determined to live at this time by the precept taught to me by my master, Sri Ramakrishna, that a sannyasin (monk), like a bird, should give no thought for the morrow. A sannyasin should rather depend wholly on God.
Swamiji’s disciple: I’m worried that you’ll suffer along the way. It’s a long trip.
Swamiji: If it’s the Master’s will that this body should suffer, then so be it. Good-bye.
Swamiji’s disciple: May Sri Rama protect you.
Narrator: The disciple takes the dust of the swami’s feet, the swami boards the train, and the train leaves the station.
SONG: Like Rolling River (text excerpted from Vivekananda’s “The Song of the Sannyasin”)
The sky thy roof, the grass thy bed, and food what chance may bring,
Like rolling river free thou ever be, sannyasin bold.
Say, “Om tat sat Om!”
Let darkness go, the will-o’-wisp that leads
With blinking light to pile more gloom on gloom.
This thirst for life forever quench; it drags
From birth to death, and death to birth, the soul.
He conquers all who conquers self. Know this
And never yield.
Where seekest thou? That freedom, friend this world
Nor that can give. In books and temples vain
Thy search. Thine only is the hand that holds
The rope that drags thee on. Then cease lament,
Let go thy hold.
Say, “Peace to all: From me no danger be
To aught that lives: In those that dwell on high,
In those that lowly creep, I am the Self in all!
All life both here and there, do I renounce,
All heavens, earths, and hells, all hopes and fears.”
Thus cut thy bonds.
Few only know the truth. The rest will hate
And laugh at thee, great one; but pay no heed.
Go thou, the free, from place to place, and help
Them out of darkness, Maya’s veil. Without
The fear of pain or search for pleasure, go
Beyond them both.
Narrator: Swami Vivekananda and a middle-aged trader are seated across from one another on the train. The trader is in a much more comfortable seat than Swamiji. The trader has a lot of food and drink on a side table and is eating. They are both swaying somewhat from the motion of the train.
Trader: Well, my dear Swami, I must admit this food sure tastes good after this long ride. You and I have been going all night and more than half of today.
Narrator: The Trader takes a big drink.
Trader: Ah! That water tasted good. The heat is unbearable today. I was absolutely parched from the heat. But that’s the last of my water. I can’t wait until we get to the next stop so I can buy myself some more. As you can see, I’ve provisioned myself very well. And what, may I ask, have you brought along to eat and drink? (Pause) What? You’ve brought nothing? Surely you don’t expect me to feed you, do you? I guess you’re living on what Rama provides. And what is He providing, may I ask? I guess you’re living on the will of Rama. How does it taste? Somewhat insubstantial? That’s too bad. I feel very sorry for you. Well, it’s my opinion that Rama helps those who help themselves. I’ve worked hard for what I have and I don’t see why you should loaf around and expect hard working people like me to support you in idleness. I’m actually doing you a favor by giving you nothing. Your hunger and thirst, which I’m sure is very great, should bring you to your senses. Maybe you’ll give up this foolishness and make money like the rest of us, instead of being a parasite on society.
Narrator: The swami remains impassive throughout. After some time the trader speaks again.
Trader: Oh, I see we’re going to have a stopover here at the Tari Ghat station. Good, I’m already thirsty again.
Narrator: The trader takes his possessions, including a mat rolled up under his arm. He walks down the steps and spreads the mat on the train platform, which affords no shade. It is a scorching day. A poorly dressed coolie enters with a large earthen jug in one hand and an umbrella in the other and approaches the trader.
Coolie: Babuji. Would you wish to purchase some water? It is only 1 pice for a glassful.
Trader: Here are three pice. Fill it up twice and hold that umbrella over me.
Coolie: Oh yes, most respected Babuji.
Narrator: He pours water into the trader’s glass and then raises the umbrella over him. Swamiji walks over to the coolie and faces him.
Swamiji: Glory to Rama. Please brother, could you give me some water? As you can see I’ve taken a vow of poverty and cannot pay you.
Coolie: I’m very sorry, revered sir. I just can’t afford to give my water away. It’s a long walk to the river. I have many children to feed. I must sell all the water I have just to barely make ends meet and still my family is virtually starving. However, perhaps this babuji will be so kind as to pay for your water.
Trader: What, are you joking? Me pay? Let me tell you, this man is a good-for-nothing.
Narrator: The Swami leaves and sits at some distance from the trader. The trader drinks with evident relish. He calls out to Swamiji.
Trader: See here, my good man, what nice water this is! You being a sannyasin, and having renounced money, cannot purchase it, and so you have the pleasure of going without it. Why don’t you earn money as I do and have a good time of it? In my opinion you’re getting what you deserve.
SONG: The Song of the Free (text: Vivekananda’s poem of the same name)
The wounded snake its hood unfurls,
The flame stirred up doth blaze,
The desert air resounds the call
Of heart struck lion’s rage:
The cloud puts forth its deluge strength
When lightning cleaves its breast,
When the soul is stirred to its inmost depth
Great ones unfold their best!
Let eyes grow dim and heart grow faint
And friendship fail and love betray,
Let Fate its hundred horrors send
And clotted darkness block the way—
All nature wear one angry frown
To crush you out — still know, my soul
You are Divine. March on and on,
Nor right nor left but to the goal!
Nor angel I, nor man nor brute,
Nor body, mind nor he nor she;
The books do stop in wonder mute
To tell my nature—I am He!
Before the sun, the moon, the earth,
Before the stars or comets free,
Before e’en time has had its birth
I was, I am and I will be!
The beauteous earth, the glorious sun,
The calm sweet moon, the spangled sky,
Causation’s laws do make them run,
They live in bonds, in bonds they die—
And mind its mantle, dreamy net,
Casts o’er them all and holds them fast.
In warp and woof of thought are set
Earth, hells and heavens, or worst or best.
Know these are but the outer crust
All space and time, all effect, cause,
I am beyond all sense, all thought,
The Witness of the Universe!
Not two nor many, ‘tis but One.
And thus in me all ones I have,
I cannot hate, I cannot shun
Myself from me—I can but love!
From dreams awake, from bonds be free!
Be not afraid. This mystery,
My shadow cannot frighten me!
Know once for all that I am He!
Narrator: While the trader continues to taunt the swami and enjoy his water, meal, and shade, the action now changes to another part of town. A sweetmeat vendor is having his afternoon nap in his shop. He is snoring. Who should enter the room but Lord Rama with his light green complexion. Rama walks directly over to the sweetmeat vendor and gently touches him on the shoulder. The sweetmeat vendor turns his head and looks at him in amazement. As Rama speaks he rises up in the bed.
Rama: Apurva, please get up. I need your help. My beloved child is without water in this terrible heat for a whole day. He is also without food. I am very much pained by his suffering. Moreover, he is depending entirely on Me. See, there he is at the train station sitting at some distance from that rich trader who is without faith or devotion.
Narrator: The whole scene at the station becomes clear to Apurva. Rama points out Swamiji.
Rama: Not only is the trader not helping him, he is taunting him and Me mercilessly. And this, after all the grace I have shown to him. Please, get up right now, prepare some puris and curry. Bring these along with some sweetmeats, plentiful cold water, a mat to sit on and an umbrella for you to hold giving him shade.
Narrator: After saying this Rama leaves. Apurva then starts as if suddenly awakening.
Apurva: What an incredible dream! Oh well, I might as well get a little more sleep before I return to work.
Narrator: Apurva lies back down and soon begins to snore again. Rama reenters his room, walks over to Apurva, and this time gives him a hard shove.
Rama (angrily): Wake up! He is dying of thirst. How can you lie there like that? You must get up right now and do as I say.
Narrator: Apurva immediately arises and goes to the table in his shop. Rama watches him with arms akimbo. Seeing that Apurva is now obeying his request he leaves again with a smile.
SONG: I Carry What They Lack (text: Bhagavad Gita: 7: 17, 18; 9: 13, 22, 34)
They who worship me with a steadfast heart,
Ever seeing me as the Self of all beings,
Dedicating every moment to me,
I carry what they lack and preserve what they have.
They who are devoted to me alone
Very dear am I to these persons of true wisdom.
They are also very dear to me;
I am the only goal of their devoted hearts.
They who worship me to attain other ends,
They are also dear, But the persons of true wisdom
I regard as my very self
For they alone love me for my own sake.
They alone know me, the Source of all,
They are great in soul; they become what is god-like.
Knowing me to be above life and death,
They offer me the homage of a one pointed mind.
Offer every action and thought to me,
Fill your mind with me, bow down to me, adore me.
If you set your heart upon me thus
And make me your ideal, you will come into me.
Narrator: Apurva is now looking for the beloved child of Rama who had been pointed out to him. He is laden with various objects. After a bit his face brightens as he finds the person he is looking for. In a hurried manner he puts down his load, spreads the mat, and places the jug, glass, and bundle on the mat. He opens the bundle revealing various dishes: puris, curry and sweetmeats. There is enough room on the mat for a person to sit comfortably. Swamiji is sitting impassively. The trader watches Apurva and is looking perplexed. Apurva then calls Swamiji.
Apurva: Maharaj, do come and take the water and food I have brought for you! (Pause.)
Narrator: Swami Vivekananda is surprised, and the trader’s expression changes from perplexity to one of amazement.
Apurva: Come on, Maharaj, you must come and eat the food!
Swamiji: I am afraid you are making a mistake, my friend. Perhaps you are taking me for someone else. I don’t remember having ever met you.
Apurva: No, no! You are the very Maharaj I have seen.
Swamiji: What do you mean? Where have you seen me?
Narrator: The trader is gaping during this exchange, jaw hanging, eyes wide with astonishment.
Apurva: I am a sweetmeat vendor and was having my usual nap after my noon meal. I dreamt that Sri Ramji was pointing you out to me and telling me that He was pained to see you without water and food from the previous day and that I should get up instantly, prepare puris and curry and bring them to you at the railway station with some sweetmeats, plentiful cold water, and a mat for you to sit on. I woke up, but thinking it was only a dream I turned on my side and slept again. But Sri Ramji, in his grace, came to me again and actually pushed me to make me get up and do as He said. I quickly prepared some puris and curry, and taking some sweets which I had prepared this morning, a jug of cold water, and a mat from my shop, I ran here direct and recognized you at once from a distance. Now do come, drink and have your meal while it is fresh. You must be very thirsty and hungry. Here, I’ve poured a glass of water for you.
Narrator: Swami Vivekananda comes over to the mat provided. Before he sits, Apurva takes the dust of his feet. Swamiji sits. Tears are streaming down his face. He speaks with a choked voice.
Swamiji: I don’t know how I can ever thank you enough for this kindness.
Apurva: No, no, Maharaj! Do not thank me! It is all the will of Sri Ramji! If you have no objection I would like to give you some shade as directed by Sri Ramji. You are sitting here in the scorching sun.
Narrator: He opens the umbrella and holds it over him while standing behind him as Swamiji replies.
Swamiji: I thank you again. (Closes his eyes and folds hands) I thank Sri Ramji. (Pause. Opens eyes.) I have no objection if you don’t mind. I am faint from the heat.
Narrator: Swamiji salutes him with folded palms and quickly drinks the large glass of water. He emits a loud sigh of relief. He pours himself a second glass part of which he drinks. Then he begins to eat the various items of food. During this scene the expression of the trader has gradually passed from astonishment to pious wonder and then to shame. He raises his left hand to his head which he lowers into his hand. He shakes his head back and forth. The trader goes over to Swami Vivekananda and gets down on his knees. With folded hands and bowed head he begins to speak. Meanwhile the coolie closes his umbrella and puts it down as he also sinks to his knees right in place. He also has folded hands and bowed head facing the swami. Swami Vivekananda continues to eat as the trader speaks as follows. Gradually a smile breaks out upon Swamiji’s face.
Trader: Maharaj, can you please forgive me for the terrible abuse I have heaped upon your head? I implore you, forgive me! I fear Ramji will punish me for my impiety. No, he should punish me. I imagined that I was so superior to you since I have money and you have none. Now I see that I’m not fit to be dust upon your feet. All I can think about is my own pleasure. My faith in Ramji, until He opened my eyes just now, was virtually nonexistent. Please bless me despite the terrible way I was indifferent to your suffering and jeered at it. The way you swallowed my abuse without a murmur. You must be a saint. I know that you will bless me.
Narrator: The trader takes the dust of Swamiji’s feet prostrating flat on the platform. Swamiji puts a hand upon his head blessing him.
SONG: The One That Loves Me (text: Bhagavad Gita 9: 30-31)
Though one be soiled with the sins of a lifetime,
Let him but love me rightly resolved in utter devotion,
I see no sinner, that person is holy.
Holiness soon shall refashion his nature
To peace eternal.
Of this be certain: the one that loves me shall not perish.
O Son of Kunti, of this be certain:
The one that loves me shall not perish.
Swamiji: (in a gentle voice) Come, sit up. I am no saint.
Narrator: The trader continues to lie at Swami Vivekananda’s feet.
Swamiji: But it is nectar to the ears to hear a man acknowledge when he was wrong. Of course I forgive you. Ramji must love you too since he has displayed his grace right before your eyes.
Narrator: The trader’s body is now racked with sobs.
Swamiji: There, there. Please sit up.
Narrator: The trader sits up still gently sobbing. He looks at Swamiji with eyes full of devotion.
Swamiji: You know, I actually agree, in part, with your criticism of sannyas. Your criticism in essence raises the question, “Of what good is the sannyasin to society at large?” The sannyasin looks to the householders for support. What does he give in return? On the one hand, the sannyasin teaches the world what an incredible treasure God must be since, for the sake of God, he suffers so much deprivation. This in itself is a great service to the world. Also, by presenting himself for offerings he provides people with the opportunity to serve God. But on the other hand, I sometimes think, full of shame, “What benefit is it to the poor to feed me? They are struggling so hard. All society is just kicking them in the face and I’m only adding to their difficulties. If they can save a handful of rice, they can feed their own children with it.” I entirely approve of that poor fellow over there who wouldn’t give me water.
Narrator: The coolie bows his head to folded palms. Swamiji stands.
Swamiji: (his voice swelling) We sannyasins must do something to help the poor of India. The Upanishads say that God has taken the form of every person. Why don’t we sannyasins act on this teaching? The householders are already worshipping God in the form of the sannyasin. Likewise, we sannyasins should direct our worship to the living gods who appear before us in the form of the poor. Householders with means should also take up this cause. But the sannyasins of this wonderful country are a great untapped resource. They could provide a world of benefit for the poor by bringing them literacy, for instance, or by helping them in times of famine or disaster by gathering funds from people like yourself and then lovingly using these funds to help them. If Ramji provides the opportunity, I plan to broadcast this message across the face of India. Then, by God’s grace, not only will the poor be helped materially and socially, they will gain self-respect in knowing that the living God is their very self.
SONG: The Living God, from the cantata, “The Bard and the Prophet” (texts: excerpted from Vivekananda’s poem, The Living God; Walt Whitman, excerpt from unpublished manuscripts)
(Vivekananda) He who is in you and outside you,
Who works through all hands,
Who walks on all feet,
Whose body are all ye,
Him worship, and break all other idols!
He who is in you and outside you,
Who is at once the high and low,
The sinner and the saint,
Both God and worm,
Him worship—visible knowable real, omnipresent,
Break all other idols!
(Whitman) If I build God a church, it shall be to men and women.
If I write hymns, they shall all be to men and women.
If I become a devotee, it shall be to men and women.
(Vivekananda) Ye fools! Who neglect the living God,
And his infinite reflections with which the world is full.
Him worship, the only visible!
Break all other idols! • • •
BILL DAVIS came to the Vedanta Society of New York in 1972. After a career as a psychologist, he retired in 2007 and now lives at Vivekananda Retreat, Ridgely, where he serves as general helper and handyman. He also still helps out monthly at the Vedanta Society of NY. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
JOHN SCHLENCK, resident member and Secretary of the Vedanta Society of New York, is a composer of music. He is also Secretary-Treasurer of Vedanta West Communications and Coordinating Editor of American Vedantist. Email: email@example.com