They were radically different. Acharya Jagadish Chandra Bose was a staunch Brahmo and Swami Vivekananda a devout Hindu. Their coming together was in itself a paradox, indeed a transition from belligerence to harmony. Their contribution to their respective philosophies was original.
Vivekananda’s image worship and Guru worship were repugnant to Bose, and the latter was openly disgruntled. However, Bose’s reservations against Vivekananda disappeared because of Sister Nivedita’s catalytic role. Nivedita wanted these two great sons of India to come close in order to make the country strong.
Nivedita was very close to Bose, almost a member of his family. Jagadish Chandra was, nevertheless, quite disappointed with her when she delivered public lectures on Kali. Another reason for the disappointment was that she was an initiated disciple of Vivekananda and deeply devoted to the Swami’s guru, Sri Ramakrishna.
Bose had once observed rather casually that Sri Ramakrishna was a misogynist. He was incorrect. Ramakrishna used to hold women in the highest esteem, as a veritable reflection of the Mother of the Universe.
Nivedita had once said: “It grieves me much to find the attitude of men like Dr. Bose … to the Swami, since I lectured on Kali. Now all that about the Comparative Study of Religion is beginning to have its real value for me. I understand by the baffled feeling he (Bose) gives me when we talk on the question how impossible any other line of approach will be to him, to see these things as we see them. And his position, great thinker and scholar as he is in other lines, seems, compared to Swami’s on this branch, a position of ignorance and superstition compared to science and reason”. She tactfully discussed and resolved the misconception with fortitude.
While doing so, Nivedita faced Bose’s “bitterness”. She was cut to the quick, Still, she had no room for impatience and misunderstanding. She wrote to Josephin Macleod on 5 April 1899: “At present my dreadful narrowness hurt him (Bose) unbearably. I coaxed him to tell me our differences. Then it came out. The deification of Swami’s Guru. A man cast in a narrow mould ~ a man who held woman to be something half fiend ~ so that when He saw one He had a fit. Between a gasp and smile I said I could not accept the narrative”.
She “confessed” that she “too worshiped” Ramakrishna, but that “was personal”. She “pointed out” that “none” and “least of all Swamis (of the Ramakrishna Order) wanted him to worship”.
In the beginning, Bose’s impression regarding Vivekanananda was respectful. Bose “spoke of the great thrill with which he hears Swami say that his mission was to bring manliness to his people, and with which still in England he read his Calcutta lectures and saw him contemptuously tear his great popularity to tatters for the real good of truth and man”.
Nivedita said: “But then he found him proceeding to worship his Guru and other things (my Kali etc.) he had dropped with a groan. The man who had been a hero had become the leader of a new sect”. She thought it was an “emotional divergence”.
Nivedita avoided argument, saying “the time for that was not yet”. Instead, she sent a letter to him filling it with her “love and worship”. She insisted that she should at least “enjoy their (Brahmos) patriotism”, if they wouldn’t have theirs (followers of Ramakrishna). She stressed “both were so obviously necessary”. In return, came “a sweet note”. Girish Chandra Ghosh told her, “Dr Bose will soon be one of us ~ since he is not indifferent”.
Three days later Nivedita wrote to Macleod again: “For at last the friend (Bose) I loved and craved is mine. And how great! How simple! ~ and thro’ what suffering!”
She told Vivekananda everything. She said to Macleod: “I told him (Vivekananda) of Dr Bose… every detail, and he said ‘Yet that boy worshipped me for three days ~ in a week’s time he would be mine’. I said ‘he does worship (if you only knew with what depth and self-restraint that exquisite worship is given”). Vivekananda remarked: “Yes and those are always the people who make the fuss about worship of the personal. They don’t understand themselves ~ and they hate in others what they know they are struggling against!”
Nivedita saw “sudden light” in a “diagnosis” ~ which she determined and earnestly desired ~ if she could get Bose ‘once to the (Belur) Math’. She thought Vivekananda had all ~ beauty and wit ~ and was therefore “unique”. She said, “He is child of child ~ as a fool. But scratch, and all the manliness shines out ~ in an instant”. Hence, she was sure if Bose met Vivekananda all his misgivings would disappear.
She was successful. After consulting the Swami, she went straight to the Boses’ to ask them to come to Belur Math with her and have tea. She wrote: “I love the Boses and I loved to have them there ~ and the King (Vivekananda) was his dear self, …” For sure, the conversation for the first time was fruitful.
It ws the turning point, Vivekananda later visited the Boses many times. Endorsing this, Bose’s centenary publication mentioned: “The editor of this brochure had more than once heard from lady Bose how Swamiji, in between his sojourns abroad, would call on his friend in Calcutta and amuse him with stories of his many odd experiences abroad and regale himself with East Bengal dishes ~ hot curries ~ cooked specially for him by her, the hotter the better”.
In 1900, Bose represented India in “International Congress of Physicist” at the Paris Exhibition and Vivekananda participated in the conference on the History of Religion. Here they came to know one another more intimately. Vivekananda’s response was overwhelming, seeing Bose being honoured in the midst of world-class scientists. He wrote highly of his achievement making India proud.
After Paris they were never face to face again. Vivekananda lived only for another two years. He passed away on 4 July 1902. The message gave Bose a severe jolt. He wrote to Miss Maceod three days later: “I cannot tell you how grieved I am to send you the enclosed copy of a telegram. India has lost her great son. But his has been a heroic life, and he carried the banner of glory”. And to Nivedita he wrote: “What a void this makes! What great things were accomplished in these few years. How one man could have done it all. And how all is stilled now.
Seem to see him just as I saw him in Paris two years ago… the strong man with the large hope, everything large about him”. Finally, he said, “I cannot tell you what a great sadness has come”. Expressing his grief, he wrote to Mrs. Oe Bull as well, Bull was a disciple of the Swami and had adopted Bose as her son. She generously assisted Bose from her fortune for his work. He wrote to her saying, “his (Vivekananda’s) deeds and teachings will walk the earth and waken and strengthen”.
Bose and his wife stayed on several occasions in the Ashrama at Mayavati started by Vivekananda in the Himalays. Meanwhile, his idea about Ramakrishna had also undergone a substantial transformation. He now deeply admired Ramakrishna’s astonishing renunciation and spiritual attainment. For example, during one of his visits there, while Nivedita was once giving “a talk to the monks and novices” she “spoke of the necessity for the highest learning, among the followers of a religion”.
Some “youngsters” then “aired their own ideas about Sri Ramakrishna not being learned.” Bose’s reaction was sharp. Nivedita wrote: “Aterwards the Bairn (Bose) said he was so angry, he could hardly contain himself. Did they realize what it meant, to sit day after day beside the Ganges changing earth and gold from hand to hand till he could throw both away? Did fools not see what an effort of the mind there was? Did they suppose it made any difference, whether that found expression in Mathematics or Greek or Physics or Religion? Could they see it was the essence of learning?” Bose was never “indifferent” towards Swami Vivekananda and his Guru. His perceptions about them were ingenuous.
The writer is with the Ramakrishna Mission Ashram, Narendrapur