But the young Narendra, like much of young Bengal, had been swayed by the persuasive teachings of the socio-religious groups of the day, which responded to the challenge of the West, not with atheism, but with a ‘Christianized’ form of Hinduism. In their attempt to purify Hinduism of what they saw as superstition, they preached that the various deities were false, and its members even signed loyalty oaths vowing not to bow down before images. Thus, Narenda’s close association with Sri Ramakrishna created a great dilemma for him, for he had witnessed the Master’s power, purity, and devotion, but could not accept the Hindu world that the Master lived in: a world of gods and goddesses, of ‘graven’ images, of visions and ecstasies. Swamiji later said of this time: “How I used to hate Kali! … and all Her ways! That was the ground of my six years’ fight—that I would not accept Her. … I loved him [Sri Ramakrishna], you see, and that was what held me. I saw his marvelous purity. … I felt his wonderful love. … His greatness had not dawned on me then. All that came after wards when I had given in. At that time I thought him a brain-sick baby, always seeing visions and the rest. I hated it. And then I too had to accept Her!”2 Like many major breakthroughs in life, Swamiji’s ‘accepting’ Kali came as the result of a personal crisis. With the death of Narendra’s father, his once affluent household was thrown into deep poverty. The young Narendra, although employable and qualified, could not secure any work to relieve his family’s suffering. He reached the point of despair. Perhaps all this was the arrangement of the Divine Mother, for in times of great need She manifests. The Swami recounts:
“It occurred to me that God grants the Master’s prayers, so I should ask him to pray on my behalf that my family’s financial crises would be overcome. I was sure that he wouldn’t refuse, for my sake. I rushed to Dakshineswar and importuned him, saying, ‘Sir, you must speak to the Divine Mother so that my family’s financial problems can be solved.’ The Master replied: ‘I can’t make such demands. Why don’t you go and ask the Mother yourself. You don’t accept the Mother—that is why you have all these troubles.’ I replied: ‘I don’t know the Mother. Please tell the Mother for me. You have to, or I won’t let you go.’ The Master said affectionately: ‘My boy, I’ve prayed many times to the Mother to remove your suffering. But She doesn’t listen to my prayers because you don’t care for Her. All right, today is Tuesday, a day especially sacred to Mother. Go to the temple tonight and pray. Mother will grant whatever you ask for, I promise you that. My Mother is the embodiment of Pure Consciousness, the Power of Brahman, and She has produced this universe by mere will. What can She not do, if She wishes?’ When the Master said that, I was fully convinced that all my suffering would cease as soon as I prayed to Her. I waited impatiently for night. At 9.00 p.m. the Master told me to go to the temple. On my way, I was possessed by a kind of drunkenness and began to stagger. I firmly believed that I would see the Mother and hear Her voice. I forgot everything else and became absorbed in that thought alone. When I entered the temple, I saw that the Mother was actually conscious and living, the fountainhead of infinite love and beauty. Overwhelmed with love and devotion, I bowed down to Her again and again, praying, ‘Mother—grant me discrimination, grant me detachment, grant me divine knowledge and devotion, grant that I may see You without obstruction, always!’ My heart was filled with peace. The universe disappeared from my mind and the Mother alone occupied it completely.”
During the years of his training, Narendra kept asking Sri Ramakrishna for an experience of nirvikalpa samadhi, the complete absorption of the self in the Divine. The moment came at Kashipur, during the Master’s final illness. Sri Ramakrishna was lying awake in his bed while Narendra was downstairs in another room absorbed in deep meditation. He felt as if a lamp was burning at the back of his head when his sense of individual existence drowned in the bliss of pure Being. When he regained normal consciousness, Sri Ramakrishna told him: “Now the Mother has shown you everything. But this revelation will remain under lock and key, and I will keep the key. When you have accomplished the Mother’s work you will find the treasure again.” Even the realization of the non-dual Brahman comes as a gift from the Divine Mother.
“Come out into the broad light of day, come out from the little narrow paths, for how can the infinite soul rest content to live and die in small ruts? Come out into the universe of Light. Everything in the universe is yours. Stretch out your arms and embrace it with love. If you ever felt you wanted to do that, you have felt God.”
Vivekananda did not often mention Sri Ramakrishna in his public talks in the West. Even less did he reveal the centrality of Mother Kali in his life and thought. He focused, instead, on the message of the Master by presenting the broad underlying principles of religion, lecturing on the Upanishads, and preaching “what is good for universal humanity.” Though not openly preached, the swami could not keep his love for the Divine Mother hidden from his intimate disciples. “You see,” he once said, “I cannot but believe that there is somewhere a great Power that thinks of Herself as feminine, and called Kali, and Mother.”
Just as Sri Ramakrishna incarnated at a time when Indian culture was being threatened by materialism, so also Swamiji arrived in the United States at a cusp in Western culture, when simple religious beliefs were being undermined by the scientific method, the evolution theory of Charles Darwin, and the industrial revolution. The doctrines of the Church no longer satisfied the educated classes, who became Swamiji’s audience. To them he spoke his Master’s liberal and liberating message: that God not only exists but can be realized as a personal fact; that the religions of the world are paths leading the sincere to this ultimate goal; that the truths of the Upanishads and methodologies of yoga were not antagonistic to rational enquiry or scientific scrutiny.
In India Swamiji is a national hero, the prophet of the modern Hindu renaissance. We can see practically the transformative influence he has had on his motherland by inspiring generations of his monastic and lay followers to spread education, empower women, uplift the poor, serve the distressed, and distribute spiritual knowledge—all in the name of Sri Ramakrishna, the avatar of the age.
But what is his enduring legacy outside of India? As the first Hindu sannyasin to preach in America, Swamiji prepared the stage for today’s interest in yoga, meditation, ayurveda, kirtan, and the many Hindu-based religious movements that are thriving. But we also see the more subtle effect of Swamiji’s work, the effect he has had on the intellectual and spiritual culture of the world. Sri Ramakrishna’s realization: ‘As many faiths, so many paths’ was first presented to the West by Swamiji. This once revolutionary idea is now widely accepted, even by many Christians. Although ‘Vivekananda’ is not a household name, his influence has acted as a leavening agent, fundamentally lifting the world view of millions.
While in India this universal message has never been separated from the person of Sri Ramakrishna, in the West, we are only beginning to recognize the person behind the principles, the giver of the gift. When you love someone, you want to love what they love , who they love. Sri Ramakrishna and Mother Kali cannot be separated. Though it has been 120 years since Swamiji first addressed his American sisters and brothers, Mother’s work in America is just beginning. She must have a special plan, for She not only sent Vivekananda, but also other companions of the avatara, such as Swamis Saradananda, Turiyananda, Abhedananda, Trigunatitananda, and Nirmalananda—all great saints and knowers of God.
Swamiji arrived in America in 1893. Within seven short years he established a network of societies to promote the teachings of Vedanta. Since then, these have spread to hundreds of centers, ashramas, monasteries, convents, study groups, and home shrines—all dedicated to Sri Ramakrishna. Swamiji once told Sister Nivedita: “The future, you say, will call Ramakrishna Paramahamsa an Incarnation of Kali? Yes, I think there’s no doubt that She worked up the body of Ramakrishna for Her own ends.”
After many nights of intense austerities at Kshir Bhavani in Kashmir, Swamiji had the vision of the Mother. Returning to the houseboat that he and his companions were renting, he raised his hands in benediction and placed the marigolds that he had offered to the goddess on the heads of all of the disciples saying, “No more ‘Hari Om!’ It is all ‘Mother’ now! … I am only a little child!”
Today, 150 years after his birth, we are still calculating the tremendous impact this ‘little child’ has had on the world. Sri Ramakrishna held the key to the Mother’s treasure, and SwamiVivekananda, in his brief, blazing life of service, accomplished Her work, without a doubt. But Mother’s great miracle is that he then left the key for anyone of us to find, if we but surrender to Her.
om namah shrii yati-rajaaya vivekaananda suray| satchit sukha svarupaaya svamine tapa-harine||
“Salutation to the sage Vivekananda, that king of monks, the embodiment of existence, consciousness and bliss, the Master, the remover of suffering.”