SPIRITUAL SITES, ESPECIALLY high-energy mountainous shrines, bring to the fore unresolved tension and inner turbulence. For Sister Nivedita, the journey to the Himalayas with her master, Swami Vivekananda, proved this to be more than true. It was for her almost the proverbial dark night of the soul.
In her posthumously published travelogue, Notes of Wanderings with Swami Vivekananda (1913), Nivedita describes her halcyon days before her Himalayan sojourn. From March to May 1898, she stayed with Sara Chapman Ole Bull, whom Vivekananda called ‘Dhira Mata’. They were ensconced in a small riverfront cottage in Belur, outside Calcutta.
Of their home by the Ganges, Swami Vivekananda had remarked, “You will find that little house of Dhira Mata like heaven, for it is all love, from beginning to end.”
Looking across the river to Dakshineswar, at some distance from the monastery where the Swami and the monks resided, their retreat indeed presented ‘an unbroken harmony… everything alike beautiful—the green stretch of grass, the tall cocoanut palms, the little brown villages in the jungle, and the Nilkantha [bird] that built her nest in a treetop beside us’ (ibid).
Each day, Vivekananda would visit in the morning hours, continuing his vivid and unique lessons on every conceivable topic, but especially on Indian history, philosophy, religion and spirituality. As Nivedita recalls, ‘Whatever might be the subject of the conversation, it ended always on the note of the infinite… He might appear to take up any subject—literary, ethnological or scientific—but he always made us feel it as an illustration of the Ultimate Vision. There was for him nothing secular’ (ibid). The call to the infinite also meant, for Vivekananda, revulsion for all forms of slavery: ‘He had a loathing for bondage and a horror of those who ‘cover chains with flowers’,’ (ibid).
On May 3rd, visiting with Sarada Ma, Sri Ramakrishna’s spouse, better known as Holy Mother, the Swami became very concerned over the prevailing situation in Bengal. ‘The political sky was black,’ Nivedita recollects, ‘It seemed as if a storm were about to burst… Plague, panic and riot were doing their fell work’ (ibid). In a premonition of his poem, ‘Kali the Mother’, the master said to the two Western ladies, “There are some who scoff at the existence of Kâli. Yet today She is out there amongst the people. They are frantic with fear, and the soldiery have been called to deal out death. Who can say that God does not manifest Himself as evil as well as good? But only the Hindu dares to worship Him in the evil” (ibid).
Perhaps, it was to safeguard his Western lady-guests that Vivekananda set out a week later on May 11th for the long journey to the hills. Apart from his gurubhais, Sara Bull and Nivedita, Josephine McLeod (Jo or Jaya) and Mrs Paterson, the wife of US Consul General Paterson, also accompanied Vivekananda. Entraining at Howrah Junction, they arrived at Kathgodam in the Himalayan foothills two days later on May 13th.
For Nivedita it was an eventful summer, etched in ‘memory as a series of pictures, painted like old altar-pieces, against a golden background of religious ardour and simplicity, and all alike glorified by the presence of one who, to us in his immediate circle, formed their central point’ (bit.ly/2XVXa3s).
In Calcutta, before this trip, Nivedita had no doubt heard of ‘the spiritual life’, even prepared for it in a fashion under her master’s tutelage. She had thought of it ‘as a thing definite and accessible, to be chosen deliberately, and attained by following certain well-known paths’ (bit.ly/2Kxvteb). But in the Himalayas, she discovered that its roots lay ‘deep in a yearning love of God, in an anguished pursuit of the Infinite’ (ibid). While others talked about its ‘ways and means’, Vivekananda’s was different: ‘He knew how to light a fire. Where others gave directions, he would show the thing itself’ (ibid).
Nivedita, during her difficult discipleship, had to turn into somewhat of a ‘thought-reader’ for nothing was explicit. She had ‘to enter sufficiently into the circuit of [her] Master’s energy to be able to give evidence regarding it from direct perception’ (ibid). Gradually, she began to recognise that the process was both rigorous and scientific, ‘subject to laws as definite as those of any physical force’ (ibid). On matters personal, the Swami maintained a ‘delicate hauteur’, reserved to the point of being touchy. Theoretical questions and discussions were of little interest to him; what mattered was direct experience.
While he had himself invited Nivedita to travel with him in order to train her, he gave her no personal attention or specific instructions. ‘In all that year of 1898 I can remember only one occasion when the Swami invited me to walk alone with him for half an hour,’ reminisces Nivedita. But even then the conversation, on policy and programmes, avoided anything subjective (ibid).
‘Wholly in bewilderment’, she turned to the newly ordained young monk, Swami Swarupananda, for daily lessons in meditation and Hinduism. Swarupananda, who founded, as we have already seen, the Advaita Ashrama, Mayavati, and also became the editor of Prabuddha Bharata, served as a ‘heliograph’, translating, as it were, the encoded messages of Vivekananda to her.
When it came to Sister Nivedita’s relation with her master, Swami Vivekananda, it could ‘only be described as one of clash and conflict’. Nivedita’s sense of natural and acquired mental self-sufficiency was gradually being destroyed. Though she had voluntarily embarked on the spiritual path famously described in the Upanishads as akin to the razor’s edge, she found herself ‘little prepared for that constant rebuke and attack upon all my most cherished prepossessions which was now my lot’
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Swarupananda had been received just a few days after Nivedita in Belur, but had progressed rapidly. In a few weeks, he had been ordained as a sanyasin by Vivekananda himself. One of the scenes that had turned him from the world was the piteous sight of an old woman, crying and moaning as she picked up, grain by grain, the rice from her bowl, carelessly tipped into the dust by a passerby. How could a just and benevolent God allow such senseless pain and suffering?
Determined to break the illusion, he had renounced the world to find the truth. To Swarupananda, it was the ‘ignorance and selfishness of the mind itself’ which was the source of ‘pain and pleasure, of justice and injustice’ (ibid). He was impelled, as Nivedita puts it, ‘to gain deliverance from the perception of opposites, and to attain to that permanent realisation of One-ness which is known, in the Hindu conception of life, as Mukti’ (ibid).
She had started studying the Bhagavad Gita with Swarupananda in Almora, learning to know ‘the love of God as a burning thirst’.’ Swarupananda also taught her how to meditate. Else, as Nivedita confesses, ‘One of the greatest hours of my life would have passed me by.’ Why? Because when it came to her relation with her master, Swami Vivekananda, it could ‘only be described as one of clash and conflict’.
Nivedita’s sense of natural and acquired mental self-sufficiency was gradually being destroyed. Though she had voluntarily embarked on the spiritual path famously described in the Upanishads as akin to the razor’s edge, she found herself ‘little prepared for that constant rebuke and attack upon all my most cherished prepossessions which was now my lot’ (ibid).
She was perceptive enough to know that ‘suffering is often illogical’, but she was unable to understand ‘the degree of unhappiness which I experienced at this time, as I saw the dream of a friendly and beloved leader falling away from me, and the picture of one who would be at least indifferent, and possibly, silently hostile, substituting itself instead’.
Nivedita, however, did not turn away from the master or her chosen path: ‘Fortunately it never occurred to me to retract my own proffered service, but I was made to realise, as the days went by, that in this there would be no personal sweetness’ (ibid).
Nivedita’s mental and emotional turbulence would come to a head in the sacred, icy grotto of Amarnath.