Swami Vivekananda wrote a large number of letters to the wife of Mr George W Hale, which were poignant, informal and revealing. He abundantly poured out his heart in them, making no bones about telling her the truth.
They weren’t serious matters alone; a few of them carried humour as well. On the whole, a beautiful and rich collection of readable letters to Mrs Hale came from Swamiji’s facile pen.
The letters are sufficient for one to delve into the depth of kinship Swamiji had with her. Swamiji became one of her inner circle from the day Mrs Hale picked him up from the Chicago roadside and straight away put him in her house, giving him the privilege of her offspring.
Thus, he became a sibling of her children overnight. She did so ignoring the adverse opinions of many of her neighbours who thought it was her misadventure to let him live amidst her young girls.
He wrote to one of his brother disciples: “The girls (Mrs Hale’s daughters and their nieces) call me brother, and I address Mrs Hale as mother. All my things are at their place, and they look after them, wherever I go.” In a faith and colour conscious America, this was indeed an incongruent happening ~ one being a devout American Christian and the other a coloured Hindu hailing from a quaint country such as India. But what was common among them that they became so close to each other in a trice? The fact was that they were convinced that religion is one and there are innumerable religious faiths suited to numerous traditions, cultures and temperaments for its achievement, which is eternal and emancipating. Swamiji said, “One infinite religion existed all through eternity and will ever exist, and this religion is expressing itself in various countries in various ways.” Mrs Hale must have harboured the same belief rising above the superficial differences of country, creed and colour.
The flashing point of Mrs Hale’s understanding with Swamiji was, therefore, her spirituality, to which she was finely tuned and committed. In praise of her devout demeanour, Swamiji famously called her by the name Mother Church. Mrs Hale was well-to-do, cultured and spirited.
She was the mainstay of Swamiji’s life in America for a year from the eve of the Parliament of Religions in September 1893, and her family was “more dear to him than any other he would know in the west”. Her good connections with many prominent citizens inside and outside Chicago were very useful to Swamiji from the outset of his acquaintance with her.
Providing for all his basic necessities, she raised him, as it were, from the dust to a well-known figure in her country at a time when it was crucial for the fulfilment of his Mission.
Mrs Hale maintained his bank accounts and kept track of his complex movements as well as interactions with people of diverse natures and standings in society.
Her watchful attention to his needs then was relentless. Swamiji laid on her the brunt to correspond with his friends, followers and brother disciples for his work in India and abroad. In a word, his dependence on her was total and comprehensive.
His letters are a proof of all these and many more things of his subsistence then. Swamiji felt deeply indebted to Mrs Hale and her family for the unbridled protection and patronage he received from them during a very important period of his life when he was in urgent requirement of a solid prop to lean upon. On 21 November 1893 he wrote to her:
“May you be blessed forever, my kind friend, you and your whole family have made such a heavenly impression on me as I would carry all my life.” Notably, he began this letter addressing her as “Dear Mother” but in its body he described her as “my kind friend”, which shows how informal he was with her by dint of his affection to her. Swamiji was transparent to Mrs Hale, even sometimes to the point of embarrassing her, speaking against her country, countrymen and religion.
But she proved herself to be different by her conscientious conduct. She had a clear perception to be able to see Swamiji’s heart and mind. She knew his forte as well as foibles in the right measure. Swamiji’s letters to her almost invariably described his journeys, interactions, events and instructions.
In one letter he had given the message of his safe arrival at Madison. His host, a Mr Updike, “was not very friendly at first; but in the course of an hour he became very kind” to him. On 4 February 1894, he wrote from Detroit, where he was staying with Mrs Bagley who attended the Parliament and knew Swamiji well.
She was the widow of the ex-governor of Michigan. He praised her children amply. Her eldest daughter gave him “a luncheon at a club” where he “met some of the finest ladies and gentlemen of the city.”
Detroit was the place where he experienced a tough time encountering the hostile clergy, but then here he manifested his outstanding power during lectures. Marie Louise Burk wrote: “Detroit was, in a sense, a turbulent vortex of the contemporaneous thought of the nation, both conservative and radical, and this, together with the fact that Swamiji’s power was rising to a peak, tended to make his visit there akin to the explosion of long brewing storm.”
Swamiji apprised Mrs Hale of various difficulties he was grappling with because of a number of Americans. We learn from his letter to her about his utter disappointment over being cheated by the Slayton Lyecum Lecture Bureau for a contract of three years he signed with it.
He wrote to her on 20 February 1894 from Detroit: “I am thoroughly disgusted with this Slayton business and I am trying hard to break loose. I have lost at least $5,000 by joining this man.” He noted that a speaker earned at least $1,000 for a lecture there, and “so in every place”, Slayton should have done the same for him, which he didn’t do by telling lies.
“Seeing the liking the American people have for me,” he wrote, “I could have, by this time, got a pretty large sum.” He consulted legal experts to get “loose from this liar of a Slayton”. Informing her, he said, “Several judges here have seen my contract, and they say it is a shameful fraud and can be broken any moment, but I am a monk ~ no self defence.”
His earnings from lectures were for his work in India but not at the cost of his monastic principles. Therefore he lastly thought he “had better throw up the whole”. He explained everything about his Mission to her. He was sending his earnings to Mrs Hale and she would deposit the amounts in his account. Two days later, on 22 February he sent her a note, giving the details of the amounts he had earned against the lectures he delivered at Detroit. He also gave her a word of caution in it, saying: “However, let not Slayton know anything about the rest of the money, as I am going to separate myself from him.”
This is just an example of the many contentious issues he shared with her in confidence which were of deep concern to him. It evidently tells of his immense faith as well as sense of dependence on her for the exceptional character that she was in fact. Mrs Hale was well aware of the ebb and flow of Swamiji’s mood.
Hence he didn’t hesitate to give expression to his feelings in both conditions. For instance, in a sort of pensive mood he wrote on 24 April 1894 from Boston: “As for lecturing, I have given up raising money.
I cannot degenerate myself any more. When a certain purpose was in view, I could work; with that gone I cannot earn for myself… I had in Detroit tried to refund the money back to the donors, and told them that, there being almost no chance of my succeeding in my enterprise, I had no right to keep their money; but they refused and told me to throw that into the waters, if I liked.
But I cannot take any more conscientiously.” We can quite imagine that hearing this Mrs Hale remained unfazed, for she surely knew he wasn’t saying it resolutely. She had replied definitely with the words which would forthwith repair his mood to resume lecturing for his avowed cause.
Mrs Hale mostly wrote long letters ~ as Swamiji did ~ giving titbits of information and enquiring about his health etc., along with the details of the progress with things he had asked her to do, which could be anything connected with his work.
It clearly indicates that he had free access to her and she, too, was pleased to freely meet his needs, however complicated and challenging, as a doting mother would. She eased Swamiji’s myriad obstacles at the earliest period of his endeavour.
Accordingly, she is unforgettable. We infinitely owe for her unparalleled contribution in laying a firm foundation that acted as a niche for Swamiji to stand upon for taking the task of the budding Ramakrishna Mission forward. So we most affectionately remember this matchless woman with a pious heart on the completion of 125 years of the Mission’s illustrious existence.
(The writer is associated with the Ramakrishna Mission, Narendrapur)