by Bill Davis
Music by John Schlenck

Swami Vivekananda

Swami Vivekananda

A dramatic reading in four scenes

Author’s introduction: This dramatic reading is a mixture of historical fact and the author’s imagination. The conversations depicted in this reading all took place and we know their outcome but we often don’t know the words that were spoken. These the author filled in from his imagination based on what he could glean from the histories.

Characters in order of speaking:

Kate Sanborn
The Japanese Ambassador
Swami Vivekananda (Swamiji)
First Fair official
Second Fair official
Sri Ramakrishna
Professor John Henry Wright
German speaking man
German speaking lady
Mrs. George Hale

Scene one: Aboard the Canadian Pacific

Song: “The Mission” (1st three verses)

He was impelled by his great heart
To go beyond the sea.
“Mother, Mother, shall I go?”
“Yes, my son, it shall be so.
There is a thing that you must do
Though others may not see.

Their slander will not stop my son,
For God’s grace goes with thee!”

He sailed, and small the luggage
That he carried in his hand;

But what he carried in his heart
Was more than science, more than art.
This message that he must impart,
Would others understand?
A foreign face with foreign dress
And from a foreign land?

So large a mission to perform,
Yet like a child was he—
Into a strange new country tossed,
Often hungry, often lost,
Improvident of time or cost—
But it was meant to be.
He reached the city, found his place
And waited nervously.

(Lyrics by Eric Johns)

Narrator: Scene one: Aboard the Canadian Pacific. Swamiji has just arrived at Vancouver, British Columbia, on the SS Empress of India. He is traveling by train, The Canadian Pacific, to Chicago on his way to speak at the Parliament of Religions. It is late July, 1893. He is in the observation car. Among his fellow passengers is a lady by the name of Miss Kate Sanborn. She is well known in America as a humorist, both author and lecturer. She approaches a very elegantly dressed Asian family.

Miss Sanborn: And where are you from, may I ask?

Japanese Ambassador: How kind of you to inquire. We are from Japan. I am the Japanese Ambassador. This is my wife and these are my sons. We are on our way to the Chicago World’s Fair. May I ask where you come from?

Miss Sanborn: I live outside of Boston in a town called Metcalf. Here is my card. Please come and visit me if you have the opportunity. I will introduce you to distinguished men and women of the Boston vicinity who are frequently my guests. I assure you, you will have a hearty welcome at my picturesque farm.

Japanese Ambassador: I thank you very much for your kind invitation and will make every effort to visit you some day. It is very nice to make your acquaintance.

Miss Sanborn: I assure you the pleasure is all mine. Goodbye for now.

Narrator: She now approaches Swamiji, who is sitting close by.

Miss Sanborn: And where are you from, may I ask? You are wearing very interesting clothing. Your yellow headgear – I’m not sure what you call it — is quite impressive.

Swamiji: I am from India. This is called a turban. It’s made of very lightweight cloth. You wind it around the head.

Miss Sanborn: You look so impressive. Are you also an ambassador?

Swamiji: I am a Hindu monk. This ochre robe is the badge of my calling.

Miss Sanborn: Are you by any chance going to the Parliament of Religions at the Chicago World’s Fair?

Swamiji: You have it exactly right. I will represent Hinduism. Americans, I think, will be very interested to learn about a religion that, on its surface, is quite different from Christianity, although in essence these religions are actually quite similar. Philosophically my religion is very deep and has answers to all the seemingly thorny problems raised by Western philosophers.

Miss Sanborn: It’s wonderful that you’ve come all this way to speak at the Parliament.
What you were just saying is quite fascinating. I would love to hear more about it. I will make it a point to listen to you speak at the Parliament. I’m also very impressed by your good English. You speak it better than I do.

Swamiji: I have also come to seek help for the masses of my countrymen who are suffering in terrible poverty. Your rich country may be willing to extend help to them in the form of money or know-how. May I know your name?

Miss Sanborn: Of course. I am Kate Sanborn. And your name?

Swamiji: Swami Vivekananda. I’m so pleased to meet you.

Miss Sanborn: I assure you the pleasure is all mine. (Pause) I hope you will visit me at my farm outside of Boston. It’s very pretty. Also, some men and women of learning and general culture are my frequent guests at Breezy Meadows. That’s the name of my farm. Some are Harvard professors, some Concord philosophers. I’m sure they would be eager to hear how your religion solves the philosophical problems of the West. I would be most pleased to present you to them if by chance you should come to Boston. Don’t hesitate to come if you need help or even if you’re just lonely. Here is my card.

Swamiji: Thank you for this generous offer. If the Lord wills I will certainly visit you.

Song: Who Knows How Mother Plays?

Perchance a prophet thou–
Who knows? Who dares touch
The depths where Mother hides
Her silent failless bolts!

Perchance the child had glimpse
Of shades, behind the scenes,
With eager eyes and strained,
Quivering forms—ready
To jump in front and be
Events, resistless, strong.
Who knows but Mother, how,
And where, and when, they come?

Perchance the shining sage
Saw more than he could tell;
Who knows, what soul, and when,
The Mother makes Her throne?

What law would freedom bind?
What merit guide Her will,
Whose freak is greatest order,
Whose will resistless law?

To child may glories ope
Which father never dreamt;
May thousand-fold in daughter
Her powers Mother store.

(Poem by Swami Vivekananda)

Scene two: At the Exposition Information Bureau.

Narrator: Scene two: At the Exposition Information Bureau. Swamiji has been struck speechless with amazement at the wonders he is seeing at the World’s Fair. However, as he walks about the grounds an unpleasant incident occurs. A well-dressed gentleman is observing Swamiji. He is speaking to himself:

Gentleman: Look at that dark skinned foreigner over there. What an outlandish outfit. Who does he think he is to wear a bright orange robe and a mass of yellow cloth on his head? He can be up to no good.

Narrator: He walks up behind Swamiji and gives him a hard push, almost knocking him to the ground.

Swamiji: (expressing hurt) Why did you do that?

Gentleman: Uh, uh, uh, My God. You speak English. Uh, I’m sorry. But why do you dress that way?

Swamiji: I am a Hindu monk. This is the way we dress.

Narrator: Such treatment happens more than once. Swamiji understands the narrow-mindedness that prompts such hostility. After a few days he goes to the Exposition Information Bureau.

Swamiji: Sirs, when will the Parliament of Religions commence? I am to represent Hinduism.

First Fair official: Well sir, it is to begin on September 11th. What is your name, sir?

Swamiji: Swami Vivekananda.

First Fair Official: Could spell that please?

Swamiji: S, W, A, M, I (pause) V, I, V, E, K, A, N, A, N, D, A.

First Fair official: Hmm. (pause) No, I don’t see your name on the list of delegates. Could you have applied under another name?

Swamiji: I didn’t apply.

First Fair Official: (Incredulous) You didn’t apply? You see, no one will be admitted as a delegate without proper credentials and references. I would ask you for your credentials but in fact the time for being admitted as a delegate is already long past. So I am sorry sir, but your statement that you are to represent Hinduism is in fact not accurate and cannot be honored.

Second Fair official: Out of curiosity, sir, do you have proper credentials and references?

Swamiji: I have no credential other than being a Hindu monk with a good knowledge of our scriptures.

Second Fair official: You may claim that, but we would need references to bear that out. In any case it is too late to apply for registration as a delegate. Good day, sir.

Narrator: Swamiji is walking slowly back to his hotel.

Swamiji: (in despair) What fools we were to think that I could just come here and be accepted as a delegate. We did not at all think ahead. It is typical of our lack of organization. (pause) This country is so expensive. I have to spend money like water. I won’t even have enough to last me till September 11th. But what’s the use if I can’t speak at the Parliament after all. These Fair officials are so implacable. It seems that my trip to this country has been utterly in vain. All the effort to raise money for this trip. Those boys will be so let down. What should I do?

Narrator: That night Swamiji is lying on the floor of his hotel room.

Swamiji: Oh Thakur. What a mess! What should I do? I’m half-dead with anxiety. How could I have been so stupid? How will I ever be able to serve the suffering masses of India?

Narrator: Sri Ramakrishna appears and touches him.

Sri Ramakrishna: Hut! Get up man! Those men are mere worms!

Song: Arise, My Child, and Go Forth a Man!

Arise, my child, and go forth a man!
Bear manfully what is thy lot to bear;
That which comes to thy hand to be done,
Do with full strength and fear not.
Forget not that I, the giver of manhood,
The giver of womanhood, the holder of victory,
Am thy Mother.

My sport is unerring.
For that alone set forth on the day’s journey.
Think it was for My pleasure
That thou camest forth into the world,
And for that again, when the night falls,
And My desire is accomplished,
I shall withdraw thee to My rest.

Ask nothing. Seek nothing. Plan nothing.
Let My will flow through thee,
As the ocean through an empty shell.
Be steadfast in the toil I set thee.
Weave well the warp into the woof.
Shrink from no demand that the task makes on thee.
Feel no responsibility Ask for no reward.
Strong, fearless, resolute—
When the sun sets, and the game is done,
Thou shalt know well that I, Kali,
Giver of manhood, giver of womanhood,
Withholder of victory, am thy Mother.

(From The Voice of the Mother by Sister Nivedita)

Swamiji: Ah! (a prolonged “Ah!” uttered in relief) You have come! I feel my life returning to me. (slight pause) That’s it! I have a divine command. Do or die. Why should I give up so easily? Can mere humans stand in the way if it is God’s will? (pause) Oh, that nice lady on the train. What was her name? Oh yes, Kate Sanborn. She invited me to her place outside of Boston. Here’s her card. If I can stay with her I can save money. Just as important, she said she could introduce me to distinguished people of learning. Perhaps that will open up some possibility. I need to grab any plank that comes along.

Song: To My Own Soul

Hold yet awhile, Strong Heart,
Not part a lifelong yoke
Though blighted looks the present, future gloom.

An age it seems since you and I began our
March up hill or down. Sailing smooth o’er
Seas that are so rare—
Thou nearer unto me, than ofttimes I myself—
Proclaiming mental moves before they were!

Reflector true— Thy pulse so timed to mine,
Thou perfect note of thoughts, however fine—
Shall we now part, Recorder, say?

In thee is friendship, faith,
For thou didst warn when evil thoughts were brewing—
And though, alas, thy warning thrown away,
Went on the same as ever— good and true.

(Poem by Swami Vivekananda)

Scene three: Breezy Meadows.

Narrator: Scene three: Breezy Meadows. Kate Sanborn has just received a telegram.

Miss Sanborn: My, my. This telegram is from Swami Vivekananda, my distinguished friend of the observation car. He is at the Quincy House in Boston “awaiting my orders,” as he says. My God, I promised to introduce him to Harvard professors, Concord philosophers, New York capitalists, women of fame, position, and means, with brilliant gifts in writing and conversation. But it’s mid August. Not a soul is in town. How can I entertain my gaily-appareled pundit? But I can’t let him down.

Narrator: She telegraphs back: “Yours received. Come to-day: 4:20 train, Boston Albany.” When Swamiji arrives at the Gooseville Station near Metcalf, the crowd gathered for the mail receives him in astonished silence.

Miss Sanborn: I’m so glad you could come, Mr. Vivekananda. I’m sorry for all the stares and grins from these impolite people.

Swamiji: It’s all right. Should I give up the dress of my forefathers?

Narrator: They arrive at Breezy Meadows.

Swamiji: Your place is quite lovely just as you described it. (Pause) When will I be able to meet those influential gentlemen and ladies you promised me? I am very eager to see them, and begin the struggle for my poor people.

Miss Sanborn: Yes, of course. I feel embarrassed. I did brag so about them. Now they are all in the country taking their summer vacations. But I will write them and ask them to return immediately to meet you.

Narrator: Kate Sanborn’s friends do indeed respond to her frantic appeals for help and cut their vacations short to meet this very special guest. Quickly Swamiji becomes the center of a circle of admirers, visiting the homes of several of them. One evening he is speaking to a large group. Among other things he says,

Swamiji: God is a circle whose circumference is nowhere, and whose center is everywhere. Every point in that circle is living, conscious, active, and equally working. The universe is a power composed of the Great Infinite. With our limited souls only one point is conscious. When we can get out of the limited center of body, we shall realize God, our true Self.

Miss Sanborn: Oh my head is spinning. I have to go lie down.

Narrator: One of Miss Sanborn’s friends who could not come to Breezy Meadows is Dr. John Henry Wright, professor of Greek at Harvard. After hearing about Swamiji, he is very eager to meet him. He invites Swamiji for a weekend at his summer home in Annisquam. They hit it off immediately. During that visit they have wide-ranging conversations covering all manner of subjects. The professor is very impressed. His whole family is charmed. Swamiji says to Professor Wright:

Swamiji: I have given up all hope that I will be able to speak at the Parliament of Religions. I am without credentials and references. It’s long past the deadline to apply. But strangely, I nevertheless feel that I have a divine call to speak at the Parliament.

Professor Wright: But Swami, you must speak there. This is the only way you can be introduced to the nation at large. To ask you for your credentials is like asking the sun to state its right to shine! I am a friend of the Chairman of the Committee of the selection of delegates. I will write to him immediately.

Narrator: Professor Wright goes to his desk and dashes off a letter to the Chairman.

Professor Wright: Let me read you this letter. I’ll skip over the pleasantries and get to the nub of the matter. “This man, Swami Vivekananda, certainly should be seated to represent Hinduism. Never mind the deadline for application. That is trivial compared to the opportunity to hear from this profound man. He doesn’t have credentials and references? Well, I’ll credential him and be his reference: Here is a man who is more learned than all our learned professors put together.”

Swamiji: I’m speechless with gratitude.

Narrator: A few days later Professor Wright comes calling at Breezy Meadows.

Professor Wright: I have heard back from the Chairman. You’ve been accepted as a delegate. You need to return forthwith. I imagine your finances are rather strained. Please accept this train ticket to Chicago. Here’s a letter of introduction to Dr. Barrows and his address. He will arrange your housing and meals.

Swamiji: I’m overwhelmed by this unexpected grace of the Lord. I can’t thank you enough. You are indeed His instrument.

Song: A Song I Sing to Thee

A song I sing. A song I sing to Thee!
Nor care I for men’s comments, good or bad.
Reproach or praise I hold of no account.
Servant am I, true servant of Thee both.
Low at Thy feet, and Mother’s, I salute!

Thou standest stead-fast, ever at my back,
Hence when I turn me round, I see Thy face,
Thy smiling face. Therefore I sing again
And yet again. Therefore I fear no fear;
For birth and death lie prostrate at my feet.

The eye looks out upon the universe,
Nor does it seek to look upon itself;
Why should it? it sees itself in others.
Thou art my eyes! Thou and Thou alone;
For every living temple shrines Thy face.

Even, at times, I dare be angered with Thee;
Even, at times, I’d wander far a-way:
Yet there, with speechless mouth and tearful eyes,
Thou standest fronting me, and Thy sweet Face
Stoops down with loving look on face of mine.

Then, at Thy feet I fall on bended knees.
I crave no pardon at Thy gentle hands,
For Thou art never angry with Thy son.
Who else with all my foolish freaks would bear?
Thou art my Master! Thou my soul’s real mate.

(Poem by Swami Vivekananda)

Scene four: A Night in a Boxcar

Narrator: Scene four: A Night in a Boxcar. Swamiji meets a merchant on the train who promises to direct him to his destination. However, when they arrive in Chicago the man rushes off forgetting his promise. To make matters worse Swamiji has lost Dr. Barrow’s address. Swamiji approaches a passerby outside the train terminal.

Swamiji: Pardon me sir. Can you direct me to the parliament of Religions?

Man: No spreche English. Nur Deutsch.

Swamiji: Pardon me Madam. Can you direct me to the World’s Fair?

Lady: Entshuldigen. Ich kann kein English sprechen.

Narrator: No one seems to speak English. Night is coming on. At last he climbs into an empty boxcar.

Swamiji: Thakur is putting me through another test. Well I’ve slept by the wayside many, many a time. I’m a sannyasin. I have had the direct realization that I am the Atman. What should it matter to me whether this body spends the night in boxcar or a luxury hotel? Somehow the Lord will arrange.

Song: Like Rolling River

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’-the-wisp that leads
With blinking light to pile more gloom on gloom.
This thirst for life, for ever quench; it drags
From birth to death, and death to birth, the soul.
He conquers all who conquers self.
Know this And never yield!
The sky thy roof, the grass thy bed, etc.

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.
The sky thy roof, the grass thy bed, etc.

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.
The sky thy roof, the grass thy bed, etc.

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.
The sky thy roof, the grass thy bed, etc.

(From the Song of the Sannyasin by Swami Vivekananda)

Narrator: Swamiji sleeps soundly. The next morning he smells fresh water and walks toward that pleasant scent. This brings him to a fashionable neighborhood by Lake Michigan. He is very hungry. He is also dirty, rumpled and unshaven. He knocks at a door and a servant opens.

Swamiji: Could you please give me some food and direct me to the Parliament of Religions?

Servant: You filthy vagabond. Be gone!

Narrator: The door is slammed in his face. Similar treatment happens over and over. Sometimes the servants speak to him very abusively.

Swamiji: These people are heartless. I’m exhausted. I think I’ll just sit down here on this curb and await the will of the Lord.

Narrator: From across the street a regal looking woman emerges from her fashionable residence and walks over to him.

Mrs. Hale: (speaking softly with refinement) Sir, are you a delegate to the Parliament of Religions?

Swamiji: Oh, you are an angel to come to me with this question. Indeed I am, but I have utterly lost my way and had to spend last night in a goods wagon.

Mrs. Hale: A goods wagon?

Swamiji: A roofed railway freight car with sliding doors on the side.

Mrs. Hale: Oh, we call that a boxcar in this country. You poor man. I feel it such a privilege to have this opportunity to be of service to you. Here, come inside. My servants will take you to a room where you can freshen up. They will wash and iron your robe. In the meantime you can put on some clothes that belong to my husband, Mr. George Hale. You and he are about the same size. After you have breakfast and your robe is ready, I myself will accompany you to the offices of the Parliament of Religions.

Song: Use Me As You Wish

This body is yours, use it as You wish.
This mind is yours, use it as You wish.
This intellect is yours, use it as You wish.
This sense of I is yours, use it as You wish.

(Lyrics by Bill Davis)

Narrator: Thus begins a lifelong friendship with Mrs. Hale and her family. Swamiji spends that day with the conviction that the Lord is with him and, in the spirit of a prophet, awaits the coming of events. The next day, September 11th, 1893, he sits on the platform with the other delegates before an eager audience of six or seven thousand well-educated people. All morning he is feeling nervous about speaking. About this he later writes, “Of course my heart was fluttering and my tongue nearly dried up.” Several times he puts off his turn. He feels himself a fool for not having prepared his remarks as all the others have done. Finally when he can put off his turn no longer, he inwardly bows to Saraswati, Goddess of knowledge. He stands, is introduced, and greets the audience:

Swamiji: Sisters and Brothers of America.

Song: Reprise of the Mission, last three verses

What words came down to grace his lips
On that September day!
The hall was large, but larger still
His voice, which rang out strong until
The farthest corner it did fill;
And no one quite could say
What raised the list’ners to their feet
Or made them cheer that way.

Those words that filled that hall with cheers
Did not stop at its doors.
Upon earth’s eager ears they fell,
Ringing clear as some great bell
Tolling death to that dark spell
Of private creeds and lores

That sunder men and cloud the truth
That each man’s heart adores.

The bell had just begun to ring
When he who rana was gone.
The meaning of the blissful play
That took the hero soon away
We do not know, we cannot say;
But somewhere is a swan
Swimming in a sparkling sea
Before a sparkling dawn.

(Lyrics by Eric Johns)

The End

Historical Notes.

1. According to The Life Of Swami Vivekananda by His Eastern and Western Disciples, Swamiji met Miss Sanborn on the train from Chicago to Boston (page 402, 6th edition, 1989). This appears to be based on Swamiji’s August 20, 1893 letter from Breezy Meadows (the home of Kate Sanborn) to Alisinga in which he states: “Just now I am living as the guest of an old lady in a village near Boston. I accidentally made her acquaintance in the railway train, and she invited me to come over and live with her.” (Complete Works, Vol. 5, page 12). The authors of the Life must have assumed that he meant the train from Chicago to Boston when in fact we now know from the reminiscences of Kate Sanborn herself given in Western Women in the Footsteps of Swami Vivekananda (Ramakrishna Sarada Mission, 1995) that she met him on the way from Vancouver to Chicago. This fact makes Swamiji’s motivation to go to Boston much clearer. I was informed by the Advaita Ashram that this has been corrected in the most recent edition of the Life.

2. Marie Louise Burke argues — to me convincingly — that it was an empty boxcar and not a box in which Swamiji spent the night. Boxcars (called goods wagons in India) in frieghtyards were commonly used by the homeless to spend the night. The “Box” was probably based on a misunderstanding of this American word. She frets, “There is, I believe, no way to get rid of this box; engraved now on the minds of innumerable children (since it is pictured in children’s books on Swamiji), it is with us for all time.” Swami Vivekananda in the West, New Discoveries, Advaita Ashrama, Mayavati, 3rd edition, 1983, pg. 59.

Bill Davis, a disciple of Swami Pavitrananda, came to the Vedanta Society of New York in 1972. After a career as a psychologist, he retired in 2007. Bill now lives at Vivekananda Retreat, Ridgely, where he serves as a handyman. He also still offers service at the Vedanta Society of NY. Email Bill at

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