The old adage goes, “A wandering monk and flowing water do not become dirty.” In that context, it has been rightly proclaimed in The Life of Swami Vivekananda: “A love of pilgrimage characterises the Hindu monk… by not remaining in any one place for long the wandering monk remains free from blemish.” Just prior to his demise or “Mahasamadhi” Sri Ramakrishna had predicted that Naren will guide others, paving the way for spiritual regeneration of the world. Following the passing of Sri Ramakrishna Paramahamsa at the Cossipore Garden house on 16 August 1886, his chosen disciples stayed in a rented dilapidated house at Baranagore under difficult circumstances.
In spite of the heavy odds, Vivekananda delineated his goals in an epistle, “Now his behest to me was that I should devote myself to the service of the order of all-renouncing devotees founded by him, and in this I have to persevere, come what may, being ready to take heaven, hell, salvation, or anything that may happen to me.” The struggle to organise, establish and propagate the teachings and philosophy of Sri Ramakrishna at that particular juncture was an unsurmountable one and it is quite evident in the same letter, in which Vivekananda had delineated his spiritual aspirations.
The letter (dated 26 May 1890) from Baghbazar, Kolkata, to Pramaddas Mitra, moots the idea of erecting a “shelter” “on the banks of Ganga in Bengal for Bhagavan Ramakrishna’s sacred remains and for his disciples.” The epistle also reveals Vivekananda’s intense desire to propagate the ‘great ideals’ of Sri Ramakrishna.
Being predestined to concretise his Master’s mission, Vivekananda was firm in actualising his aspirations of an itinerant monk’s life.This mission, along with his zeal to further discover and accumulate experiences of a new spiritual life made him embark on a journey to the outer world.
Deeply aware of his responsibility of spreading the spiritual message throughout the world, he embarked upon his historic “Bharat-Parikrama”in July 1890 with Swami Akhandananda. Spanning roughly for three years, his wanderings throughout the country (initially in the intermittent company of other monks), ultimately culminated in his historic journey for the United States of America on 31 May 1893. Prior to his departure, he had emphasised among his brother disciples, that “I shall not return until I acquire such realisation that my very touch will transform a man.”
In course of his journeys through the country he was addressed at different places by various names. As PR Bhuyan observes in Swami Vivekananda: Messiah of Resurgent India: “He began to assume various names to conceal his identity in order to be swallowed up in the immensity of India.”Vivekananda’s wanderings spanning roughly for three years are replete with anecdotes and unique epiphanic moments of spiritual experiences. Biographers have explored such experiences in considerable detail.
What however is significant to remember is the fact that through his journeys across the length and breadth of India Swamiji absorbed and assimilated the diverse and rich spiritual traditions of the country. In his process of absorption and assimilation he equipped himself further to enhance the spiritual glory of the land.
At the outset, Swamiji reached Bhagalpur in the month of August. Here, his discussions on the Upanishads impressed experts like Manmathanath Chowdhury and Mathuranath Sinha. At the Nathanagar Jain temple he interacted with the Jain monks discussing about their faith. The next stop for the monks was Vaidyanathdham, roughly 130 miles from Bhagalpur. At Vaidyanath, they encountered Rajnarayan Bose, the respected old Brahmo preacher, veteran social reformer and national leader.
According to one opinion Vivekananda may have visited Ghazipur enroute to Varanasi, while another view insists on a direct journey to Varanasi or Kashi onwards to Nainital and Almora via Ayodhya. In Varanasi or Kashi, Vivekananda enjoyed the hospitality of Babu Pramadadas Mitra, his friend and a great Sanskrit scholar.
It was on the eve of his departure from Varanasi, that Vivekananda made his historic proclamation amongst his well-wishers: “I am going away; but I shall never come back until I can burst on society like a bomb, and make it follow me like a dog.” As Swami Tejasananda observes in A Short Life of Swami Vivekananda (in the chapter entitled “A Wandering Monk”) From the moment he left Calcutta he was happy. The solitude, the village air, the sight of new places, the meeting with new people and getting rid of old impressions and worry delighted him.
When they reached the Himalayas, the splendid scenery with its waterfalls, streams, wild forests, and its serenity and quietude and above all, its invigorating atmosphere buoyed up the spirit of the Swami, and the occasional glimpses of the eternal snows filled his heart with unspeakable emotion and joy.
In course of his onward journey from Varanasi, in Nainital, Swamiji enjoyed the hospitality of Babu Ramaprasanna Bhattacharya for approximately a week before proceeding towards Almora on foot. Reaching Almora at the end of August 1890, they were guests of Lala Badri Shah.
In course of his wanderings, Vivekananda had to endure personal grievances as well. In Almora, Vivekananda learnt about the shocking news of his younger sister’s, (in probability) Jogendrabala’s suicide. He left Almora for Garhwal with the other monks Swami Sardananda, Swami Akhandananda and Swami Kripananda.
At Karnaprayag in the Garhwal Himalayas, the monks practised austerities. The peace and tranquillity of Rudraprayag, along with its scenic grandeur,fostered an atmosphere of meditative calmness paving the way for deeper spiritual contemplation. Here and later in Srinagar, days were passed by Swamiji in the company of Swami Akhandananda, Swami Saradananda in prayer, meditation and scriptural studies.
Remarkably, they lived solely on Madhukari (victuals obtained by begging from house to house, much like a bee gathering honey from various flowers) during this time period. Vivekananda’s earnest search for a secluded place for meditation was honoured by the Dewan of the Tehri state, who managed to find a suitable place in Ganesh prayag, at the confluence of the Ganga and the Vilangana rivers.
It was at Rishikesh, that Swamiji experienced Nirvikalpa Samadhi (or the realisation of the Brahman), subsequent to which, he further reiterated his zeal and deep conviction in executing his Master’s plans-the initial purpose of his arduous travels. His subsequent journeys and wanderings took him through places like Hardwar, Saharanpur, and Meerut. Post Meerut, Swamiji finally became a solitary monk and continued his further wanderings for two years throughout India.
As Swami Tejasananda observes in his brief biography: “He wandered, free from any plan, constantly with the thought of God in his mind. The Swami, in the course of his pilgrimage around India, met with all sorts and conditions of men and found himself-today a despised beggar sheltered by pariahs or a brother of the oppressed identifying himself in keen sympathy with their misery, and tomorrow a guest if the princes, conversing on equal terms with Prime Ministers and Maharajas and probing the luxury of the great, and awakening care for the public weal in their torpid hearts.”
Swamiji’s journey took him to Delhi and later to Alwar in the historic land of Rajputana. He undertook these journeys alone, desperate to cut himself off, from his final attachment-the one that he shared with his brother disciples.
At Alwar, he sang Urdu, Hindi and Bengali devotional hymns, besides reciting from the Upanishads, the Vedas, the Bible and from the Puranas. He illustrated his teaching of the scriptures to the masses with inspiring tales from the lives of Buddha, Shankara, Ramanuja, Guru Nanak, Kabir, Tulsidas, Chaitanya and Ramakrishna.
Interestingly, he even enjoyed the hospitality of several Moulavis at Alwar, insisting on universal brotherhood that bound all human individuals together. Later in course of his visit to Jaipur, Ajmer and Mount Abu Swamiji endeared himself to the masses, through his sheer erudition and knowledge. Journeying through Karnavati (or Ahmedabad), Wadhwan, Limbdi, Girnar, Bhuj, Junagadh, Porbandar, Dwarka, Palitana, Nadiad, Baroda and Rann of Kutch, Swamiji continued to practise his spiritual routine: meditating, praying and interacting with the masses.Interestingly, his discussions were not confined to Upanishads or the traditional Hindu scriptures alone. In Junagadh, he spoke of Jesus Christ and the impact of Christ in regenerating the ethics of the Western world. His versatility further endeared him to the authorities and the local masses. However, it was at Khandwa that Swamiji first expressed his serious intention of going to the World Parliament of Religions at Chicago.
Remaining in Bombay for about a couple of months in the latter half of 1892 he decided to move on to south India after a very brief stay at Kolhapur. As it has been observed in the inaugural volume of Life of Vivekananda: ‘Wherever the Swami went he was sought after not only by Hindus, but by people of other faiths as well. For instance, one Abdul Rahman Saheb, a Muslim Councillor of the State, found, to his surprise, that the Hindu sanyasi was well acquainted with the Muslim scriptures: he did not know that the Swami had made the Koran an intellectual and spiritual possession some years earlier. his Muslim came to have some doubts concerning the Koran cleared.’
Swamiji’s journey in the south of India, took him to Trichur, Cranganore (also referred to as Kodungalloor), Ernakulam and Travancore. It was from Trivandrum that he travelled to Kanyakumari or Cape Comorin near the end of 1892, where on the rocks at Kanyakumari he meditated ‘on the present and future of his country’.
It has been wonderfully summed up in his biography: ‘There, sitting on the last stone of India, he passed into a deep meditation on the present and future of his country. He sought for the root of her downfall. With the vision of a seer he understood why India had been thrown from the pinnacle of glory to the depths of degradation… Religion was not the cause of India’s downfall; but the fact that true religion was nowhere followed: for religion, when lived, was the most potent of all forces… the single-minded monk had become transformed into a reformer, a nation-builder, a world-architect.’
Correspondingly, much later,in his correspondence dated 19th March 1894 from the USA he confirmed that in course of his steadfast meditation on the rocks at the southernmost tip of the country, he had ‘hit upon a plan’ to revive the ancient glory of India. Subsequent to his three day meditation, Swami’s next destination was Rameswaram via Madurai.
At Madurai, the Raja of Ramnad, Bhaskara Setupati requested him to represent Indian spiritual thought at the forthcoming Parliament of Religions in Chicago. Swamiji’s pilgrimage to Rameswaram marked the completion of his much cherished journey through India.
Ultimately on 31 May 1893, with the goal of attending the Parliament of Religions in Chicago, Swamiji set sail by the Japan bound Orient Company’s steamer, the Peninsular. With due assistance of funds collected by his Madras disciples, the king of Mysore, the Raja of Khetri and several other well-wishers the mission was accomplished.
The parivrajaka period of Swami Vivekananda’s life is of crucial significance in the spiritual heritage of the land. As the renowned historian Dr R.C. Majumdar observes in his work Swami Vivekananda: A Historical Review: ‘The knowledge and experience that Swamiji gathered during his all-India travel proved a turning point in his career. He had now a first-hand knowledge of the poverty, ignorance, distress and misery of the masses of India, and these deeply touched the chord of his heart.’
During the span of these few years he travelled through the length and breadth of the country and directly interacted with the people of the country-the rural and the urban, the rich and the poor, the privileged aristocrat/royalty and the deprived impoverished, the extremes of caste, religion, colour and creed. Such a wide exposure and interaction with the masses continued with the routine practices of a mendicant: prolonged periods of deep meditation, prayer, chanting of hymns and intense fervent discussions on philosophy and religion. Extreme spells of austerity, starvation and hardship too characterised this period of incessant wanderings. Endurance of such adverse circumstances accounted for Vivekananda’s spiritual resilience and strength. The other remarkable feature of his parivrajaka period is his capacity to assimilate and relate with diverse forms of faith in the country.
In the words of a well-known writer, as cited in the Life of Swami Vivekananda: “During his travels, by turns he realised the essence of Buddhism and Jainism, the spirit of Ramananda and Dayananda. He had become a profound student of Tulsidas and Nischaldas. He had learned all about the saints of Maharashtra and the Alwars and Nayanars of Southern India. From the Paramahamsa Parivrajakacharya to the poor Bhangi Mehtar disciple of Lalguru he had learnt not only their hopes and ideals, but their memories as well… What better equipment could one have who was to represent before the Parliament of religions, India in its entirety-Vedic and Vedantic, Buddhistic and Jain, Shaivic and Vaishnavic and even Mohammedan? Who else could be better fitted for this task than this disciple of one who was in himself a Parliament of religions in a true sense?”
(The writer is currently the Dean of Arts, St Xavier’s College, Kolkata)