Friday 10 May 2013

In memories of Mrs. Alice M. Hansbrough

  वीरेश्वराय विद्महे विवेकानन्दाय धीमहि । तन्नो वीर: प्रचोदयात् ।

In 1941 Mrs. Alice Hansbrough gave these valuable reminiscences of Swami Vivekananda in a series of informal interviews with Swami Ashokananda in San Francisco. They were recorded by Mr A T Clifton (later Swami Chidrupananda), who was present at the interviews. Marie Louise Burke used portions of these reminiscences in her work Swami Vivekananda in the West: New Discoveries. Swami Chetanananda and a group of Vedanta students have revised and reorganized the original manuscript of reminiscences for publication. It has been made available for publication by courtesy of the Vedanta Society of Northern California.

After inquiring about Mrs. Hansbrough's daughter, Swami Ashokananda said: 'Let us begin with your first acquaintance with Swamiji's work. How did you first hear about him?'

'I first learned of Swamiji in the spring of 1897 at a lecture in San Francisco about three years before he came to California,' Mrs. Hansbrough replied. 'Two friends and I went to hear a Mrs. Annie Rix Militz speak on some metaphysical subject, and in the course of her talk she brought out some points from Swamiji's Raja Yoga and also quoted from the book. I was leaving not long after for Alaska, and my friends asked me what I would like for a steamer present. Raja Yoga was my answer. At the Emporium where they went to get it, the clerk inquired if it was for someone interested in such subjects. When they said it was, he recommended that they also get Swamiji's Karma Yoga, as the two were, as he said, "parts of a set". So I left for Alaska armed with the two books.

'Our ship was a steam schooner. The captain was not familiar with the course and we went far out of our way on the voyage. The result was four weeks en route, during which time I read from my books. I started with Karma Yoga, but found it a bit too high in thought for me, so put it aside and read Raja Yoga first. Then when I had finished it, I went back to Karma Yoga and read that. During the two years I was in Alaska I read both books over again many times.

'I remember that I used to read for a while, and the thought would come to me, "What marvellous thoughts these are!" I would hold the place with my finger, close the book and shut my eyes and think, "What a wonderful man he must be who wrote these words!" And I would try to form a picture in my mind of what he looked like.

'I met a man in Alaska who was interested in Theosophy. We used to talk about Swamiji's books and he looked through them; but he did not find anything interesting in them because he felt they were not Theosophy.'
'And after you returned from Alaska,' Swami Ashokananda asked, 'did you go to Los Angeles?'


'Yes,' Mrs. Hansbrough replied. 'I came through San Francisco on the way, and arrived in Los Angeles on November 23, 1899. Swamiji had been in Los Angeles only a few days, I later learned.' [Swamiji arrived on December 3, 1899.]

Mrs. Hansbrough said she remembered that Mrs. Leggett had come to Los Angeles for some such reason, and Swami Ashokananda was surprised to learn that Mrs. Leggett had come west at all. After some discussion on this point, the conversation turned to Mrs. Hansbrough's first hearing a lecture by Swami Vivekananda.

'It was on December 8, 1899,' she said. 'My sister Helen came home that evening and said: "Who do you think is going to speak in Los Angeles tonight? Swami Vivekananda!" All during the two years I had been reading his books in Alaska I had never expected to see him. Well, we rushed through dinner, made up a party, and went in. The lecture was at eight o'clock. Blanchard Hall was on Broadway between Eighth and Hill Streets. The audience was between six and eight hundred people, and everyone was enchanted with Swamiji. This was his first lecture in California and the subject was "The Vedanta Philosophy".

'Professor Baumgardt had asked Swamiji to give the same lecture he had given at the Brooklyn Institute on the Vedanta Philosophy. When the lecture was over, the professor complained that it was not the same lecture at all; and Swamiji told him that it was impossible for him ever to give the same lecture twice: that he could talk on the same subject, but it would not be the same.'

'How was Swamiji dressed?' Swami Ashokananda asked.

'He wore a yellow robe and turban.'


'Well, a light orange, a little lighter than the robe you use,' Mrs. Hansbrough replied.
'And how did he look?'


'His complexion was lighter than all the swamis here today, except Swami Devatmananda,' Mrs. Hansbrough said. 'His hair was black — very black — with not one grey hair. A lady once asked him later on if Hindus' hair ever turned grey!'

'How did he impress you?' Swami Ashokananda then asked.

'I got the same impression I had previously had of him; that is, he was a most impressive personality. You know, you have told me that it is not possible to get an impression of a personality from the individual's writings; but I felt that I had sensed Swamiji's personality from his books, and the impression was verified when I heard him speak.

'His voice I should say was baritone — certainly nearer to bass than tenor; and it was the most musical voice I have ever heard. At the end of the lecture he closed with that chant, "I am Existence Absolute, Knowledge Absolute, Bliss Absolute." Everyone was enchanted with his talk.

'Whenever he quoted from Sanskrit he would chant the quotation —'

'He would actually chant?' Swami Ashokananda interrupted to ask.

'Yes,' Mrs. Hansbrough replied. 'He would chant in Sanskrit and then translate. Once later on he apologized for quoting in Sanskrit, and explained that he still thought in that language and then had to translate his thoughts into English.

'When it was over, the rest of our party went up on the platform where a number of people had collected to speak to Swamiji. I sought out Professor Baumgardt, however, to find out when and where Swamiji was going to lecture again. When I asked him he inquired, "Are you interested in the swami's teachings?" I told him I had been studying them for two years, and he said, "Well, I will introduce you to the swami's hostess." He introduced me to Miss MacLeod, who, when I told her I had been studying Swamiji's works for so long, asked if I wouldn't like to go to call on him. Of course I said I would be delighted, and so it was arranged. It was not until after his second lecture, however, that we did meet him.

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