Monday, 11 June 2018

Drawn into the Orbit of the New Buddha - 5

यतो धर्म: ततो जय:

As Swamiji was uniquely qualified to understand the historical significance of Sri Ramakrishna, so Sister Nivedita was uniquely qualified to understand Swamiji. The Swami's brother-disciples knew his spiritual greatness better than anyone other than Sri Sarada Devi, but even they didn't understand his historical significance as Nivedita did. It will take many centuries for humanity to unravel the meaning of her simple words in the 'Introduction' to the Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda. Thus Nivedita was more than a scribe. As Swamiji had an unprecedented role in the phenomenon of Sri Ramakrishna's incarnation, so Nivedita had an important role in the life and work of Swamiji. As long as Swamiji is known, all efforts to lock Sri Ramakrishna inside of a temple, all efforts to keep him the property of a sect, all efforts to contain him within a narrow understanding, all efforts to turn him into one more image in the shrine where he can safely be worshipped, will fail. And as long as Sister Nivedita is known, all efforts to see Swamiji as one more saint or yogi to be remembered in calendars and photos, all efforts to see him as someone who watered down the Vedanta tradition to make it palatable to Westerners who were fit for no more, all efforts to present him as an innovator who formed a so-called neo-Vedanta which is untrue to the tradition, all efforts to interpret his mission as parallel to St Paul's through which he travelled around the world trying to make Hindu converts and establish Vedanta Societies, all efforts to show that he was a master at exaggeration, full of hyperbole, who made reckless statements on his own frail authority—all these and other small-minded interpretations, interpretations which one already hears, will fail.

It was discipleship, more than her life as a scribe that defined her very being after her initiation. But here also she was much more than a disciple. We have mentioned how the meeting between Narendra and Sri Ramakrishna will reveal its cosmic significance in time. So with the life of Sister Nivedita. We are not equating her with Swamiji. But those so closely associated with Sri Ramakrishna, Sri Sarada Devi, and Swamiji are themselves lifted into the mythic. She was not just a saintly woman who lived and died and left an inspiring story for others to admire: she also had a role to play in the cosmic lila, as Swamiji himself saw after meeting her. As Christ called the fishermen to be fishers of men, so Swamiji called this teacher of English children to be a teacher of the ages.

The meeting of Margaret Noble with Swamiji was the meeting of the West with the East—the two civilisations had already met physically, and not too happily; even the minds of the two civilisations were gradually becoming acquainted; but here was a meeting between the Soul of the West and the Soul of the East. Later Nivedita reminisced about her initial reaction to Swamiji's words when she first heard him at a private gathering in London; she spoke of 'the coldness and pride with which we all gave our private verdicts on the speaker at the end of our visit. "It was not new", was our accusation, as one by one we spoke with our host and hostess before leaving. All these things had been said before.' Such was not just the hubris of Nivedita and her friends, it was the hubris of cultivated, sophisticated Western society, which sat, as they thought, at the centre of the universe.

When Nivedita gradually submitted to Swamiji as his disciple, it was the submission of the conquering and colonising West to the spiritual wisdom of India. This may not be evident now. In a hundred years it will be. As she was to dedicate her life to Swamiji's work in India, he insisted that she become Indian Hindu even in her smallest actions, using, for example, lemon juice and powered lentils to wash her hands. And when she returned with him to England to raise money for her work, he told her to forget what she had learned in India and to return to her Western customs. This will in time also reverberate through the world, becoming the model for working in other countries—respecting the integrity of each culture, not trying to turn Africans into Europeans or Afghanis into Americans or Japanese into Indians. A new age of cultural respect will flow from Swamiji's attention to the details of her handwashing in India.

To be continued.. -Swami Atmarupananda (PB Jan 2017)