ALL the superlatives in the language couldn't convey one's impressions of Swami Vivekananda when he introduced us, early in 1900, to a completely new conception of life and religion. I have been requested, as one who took notes of his lectures for her own use, with no thought of their ever being published, to give my impressions of him. How to do it? He seemed like a radiant being from a higher plane, and yet so understanding of every phase of humanity. He appealed to every grade of intelligence by his oratory, his humour, his mimicry, his scornful denunciation of any form of pettiness or intolerance, and by his compassion for every human need.
Startled at the loftiness of his conception compared with our little ideals, we knew, as we left the hall with the Swami's vibrant chanting of a Sanskrit shloka still ringing within, that he was ushering us, in the beginning of this twentieth century, into a new and larger conception of the meaning of life.
It is interesting to look back on a long life and note the changes in one's sense of values, and also to note what tiny, insignificant events changed the whole course of life. If I had not accepted the offer of a course in stenography just before entering high school, and if, in the second year of high school I had not had a nervous breakdown and been forced to leave school, I might never have met Swamiji, although I probably would have heard some of his lectures. I had been studying the piano as well as going to school. The doctor, whose verdict was, "You must give up school or music, or you will not need either", sent me to Miss Lydia Bell for help. Miss Bell was the leader of the California Street Home of Truth in San Francisco. I was staying in the Home and taking notes of her morning classes and Sunday lectures.
In the morning classes we were studying Swami Vivekananda's Raja-Yoga (it had been published in New York during his earlier visit to the West) when the Swami, then in Los Angeles, accepted an invitation from Rev. B. Fay Mills to give some lectures in the First Unitarian Church in Oakland. There I went with Miss Bell and other friends, early in February 1900, and we were startled and astonished at what we heard, amazed and enraptured at the Swami's appearance. He was surely a Mahatma or a divine being, more than human. No one had ever been so sublimely eloquent or so deliciously humorous, such an entrancing story-teller, or such a perfect mimic. When I saw and heard him and thought of the interpretation we had been given of the civilization that had produced him, I felt almost ashamed that I was an American. I went to most of his lectures with Miss Bell and to some with other friends and met the same glowing enthusiasm in all, though with some it was the man rather than the doctrine that appealed most. I remember one very wealthy and aristocratic young lady. who was studying music with my teacher, saying ecstatically, "Oh, he is tike a lovely golden statue!"
Besides the public lectures. Swamiji had some morning classes for earnest students, in meditation. They were held in the living room of an apartment on Turk Street where Mrs. Alice Hansborough (Shanti) and Mrs. Emily Aspinall (Kalyani) kept house for him. I was able to attend only a few of these classes and did not take any notes. First there would be a meditation and then a period of instruction, followed by questions and answers and practical suggestions as to exercise, rest and diet. Swamiji stressed the importance of moderation in amount and mildness in quality of food. One suggestion I remember was that we refrain from eating salt for a week. thereby benefiting the nervous system, as salt is considered an irritant.
( Vedanta and the West, May-June 1954 Courtesy: Partha Sinha )