Sri Ramakrishna had set Naren, a brilliant but strong headed young man, on a daring and somewhat impossible path. To think that a group of destitute monks from India would even dare to embark on such a journey was laughable.
At that time India was destitute and occupied by a colonial power. Indian society was plagued by rigid norms, superstitions, and outmoded rituals. On top of all this Indians had divided themselves into rigid and dogmatic caste structures that prevented free flow of ideas. The entire structure was on the verge of collapse. Famines routinely took millions of lives. There was wretched poverty all around and the sense of hopelessness shone through the eyes of the common man. If India sank not only would ancient spiritual wisdom be lost but the ensuing chaos would be a huge problem for the rest of the world. On a broader scale the world was hungry for a unifying message and a broader understanding of the message of yoga and the Vedas. Could yoga provide insights for a new science of consciousness? Could this new understanding be the thread that unifies all the world religions and ends religious conflict? Could this message of unity be the basis for free and united India?
A rag-tag bunch of penniless monks led by Naren were out to change the world. But they had first to worry about their next meal and a roof over their head. Fortunately a devotee came forward and agreed to foot the expenses. A decrepit house thought to be haunted by spirits was rented. Naren knew that he had to build on a solid foundation. For the next two years the monks lived in dire poverty and frugality. They however took the time to embark on an ambitious education program. They examined the histories of different countries and various philosophical systems. Aristotle and Plato, Kant and Hegel, Sankaracharya and Buddha, Ramanuja and Madhva, Chaitanya and Nimbarka, and many others, were thoroughly discussed. The Hindu philosophical systems of Jnana, Bhakti, Raja Yoga, and Karma, each received a due share of attention, and their apparent contradictions were reconciled in the light of Sri Ramakrishna’s teachings. The dryness of discussion was relieved by devotional music and singing. In addition all the monks spent time meditating every day.
Next began a period of wandering. The monks had to know and understand the people they sought to transform. They had to learn about local social customs and norms and see first hand the problems people faced. They started with short trips in groups. As they gathered courage they learned to travel for longer distances. On a typical trip a monk would have no money with him. Besides the clothes the monk was wearing he carried a staff and a begging bow and nothing else. Naren carried his two favorite books with him in addition: The Bhagvad Gita and The Imitation of Christ. During their wandering they subsisted entirely on the mercy of the local people for food and shelter. Sometimes somebody would buy them a bus or train fare or else they would walk. This was a most grueling undertaking. It has to be viewed in the context of extreme poverty faced by most of the population. Sometimes the monks would go without food for days and at times pass out from exhaustion, sickness, or hunger.
By 1891 5 years after Sri Ramakrishna’s passing Naren felt that the monks were sufficiently trained and the affairs of the religious order he was leading were in proper shape. A lawsuit that his family was embroiled in was finally settled. Naren now felt un-tethered and free. He still had no answer on what he wanted to do or how he could fulfill Sri Ramakrishna’s vision. But he felt that the answer would come in due course and he had to wander out alone and find the way. Naren set out on his final journey with clear instructions that he not be followed. He decided to travel anonymously under assumed name so that he would not be tracked. One thing was sure: he resolved that either he would find the answers he was looking for or he would not show his face again to his brother monks.
For the next 2 years Naren wanders completely alone and anonymous. He kept changing his name so that he could not be tracked by his brother monks and be joined by them in his wandering. He went from East to North and West and then traveled to the southernmost tip of the country. His wandering carried him over a distance of thousands of miles. He was hosted by Maharajas and ministers at times, but most of the time he spent with ordinary people. He spent weeks with a family of sweepers in central India. Many days he would go hungry. At one time he was wandering without food for three days. Feeling weak and exhausted he fell down and passed out. When he woke up he found that he was wet because of a passing shower. Feeling refreshed he trudged along some distance where he found a monastery that provided him food and shelter and probably saved his life. Once he felt guilty of begging food from poor folks who themselves were hungry. He went deep in the jungle to be alone for a while. He saw a tiger approaching and thought “Ah! This is right, both of us are hungry. This life has been no good for the world. It is well and desirable that it should at least be of service to this hungry beast.” For some reason the tiger paused. It then turned and sauntered off. Naren sat under the tree meditating alone for a long time. A sense of power and strength came to him that remained with him for the rest of his life.
Along the way a theme emerged. The idea was that he should visit “The Parliament of Religions” in Chicago and represent India. He decided to put off any decision till he reached the southernmost tip of the country. When he reached this point he found that he had no money for the ferry ride to the shrine of Kanya Kumari, so he swam across. He spent three days here meditating and seeking an answer. When he arose from his meditation he resolved that his day of wandering be over. He had listened and he had learnt. Now the time had come to teach and spread the ideas of Sri Ramakrishna. What better venue to start this than the “Parliament of Religions”? This was a turning point for Naren, it was also a turning point for India, and it was a turning point for yoga. A new dawn was rising for the world. From now on decline and division would slowly give way to unity and love. From now on Naren would rise up and chart a new course, a new destiny for his country, the world, and yoga.
He swam back to shore and proceeded to walk to Madras (now known as Chennai). As soon as he started addressing audiences he was accorded enthusiastic response. The impact of his speeches was electric and his fame began to spread. In Madras the enthusiasm of the crowd was so high that they collected for him a sum of money that would finance his trip to the “Parliament of Religions”. But Naren was loath to handle money and he was suddenly racked with doubt. “What if all this was his internal ambition speaking? How did he know what was the will of God and his Guru?” He asked the organizers to distribute the money to the poor. Then one day he had a vision where he saw Sri Ramakrishna walk on water and beckon him to follow. Naren now felt confident that he had the blessing of his Guru. He then agreed to make this trip to Chicago and began finalizing his arrangements. Just then a messenger came to fetch him. The Maharaja of Khetri was asking him to come and bless his newborn son. The Maharaja had earlier asked Naren to bless him with a much sought after son and Naren had done so. When the child was born the Maharaja was overjoyed and wanted Naren to come personally and bless it. Naren complied. When the Maharaja learnt of Naren’s plans he gave him a new name. From now on Naren would be known as Swami Vivekananda. He also outfitted Swami Vivekananda with a robe and turban of orange silk. He bought him a first class ticket and provided him with a handsome sum of money for his expenses in the US.
May 31st 1893 Swami Vivekananda found himself aboard a ship headed for Chicago. It was about 7 years since the passing of Sri Ramakrishna. His period of wandering was over and a new chapter in his life was about to begin. Little did he know of the challenges ahead. The Parliament of Religions that was his destination had no place for an unwelcome delegate without any formal organization sponsoring him. US was not India and had no tradition of helping penniless monks begging in the streets. Would the Swami succeed in his daring mission? The story continues next week.
Related to Swami Vivekananda’s story is the “Story Of Sri Ramakrishna.”. This story is covered here.