VIVEKANANDA AND HIS WESTERN FOLLOWERS: PATTERNS OF RELATIONSHIPS

 

HAL FRENCH

UNIVERSITY OF SOUTH CAROLINA

 

           

This paper will examine the nature of Swami Vivekananda’s relationships with his closest associates, following two models, that of the guru relating to the disciple and that of simple friendship.  The first follows the rather classic model from the Indian tradition, and will be illustrated by his ties with Margaret Noble, who became Sister Nivedita.  The second, that of friendship, is illustrated by the warm accord which characterized his relationship with Josephine McLeod, known familiarly to him as Joe, as Tantine in the Vedanta Movement, and often as Yum, to Sister Nivedita, who was also her close friend.  The assumption of this approach is that we may know Vivekananda best through the quality of close relationships such as these.

 

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INTRODUCTION

Much of our focus on Vivekananda (1863-1902) has been macro in character, with attention given to his utterances to large groups of people, his writings, the way in which he addressed universal themes, etc.  The purpose of this paper, however, will by contrast have a micro focus, not the customary telescopic view of who he was.  What can we learn of him from a study of his relationships, in this case, from his patterns of relationships with his Western followers?  How much did he rely on the traditional model of guru-shishya, adapt it to new cultural expectations, or feel free to relate on a more personal, informal level, allowing relationships to develop as seemed natural, without acting out of a structured role?  I would submit, initially, that the latter was largely the case.  While he did not ignore precedents which he knew from Hinduism, these were not rigidly adhered to.  An appreciation for his own human qualities emerges from a study of these relationships, far more for me than from his public persona, fraught as that often was, alternately, with extremes of acclaim or acrimony.  We learn best who he was from how he related to his friends and his followers in intimate settings.

 

The Guru Role

 

A few general observations about the classic role of the guru will precede a discussion of the specifics of Vivekananda's own patterns of relationships.  The classic model is that of the Brahmin youth, who from the age of eight to sixteen will begin a twelve year period of tutelage under the guru's guidance.  The initiation may begin the relationship, in an impressive ceremony which includes the teacher's pledge:  "Into my vow I put thy heart; after my mind may thy mind follow; with single-aimed vow do thou rejoice in my speech; may God Brihaspati join thee to me."[1] Later examples indicate that initiation may follow an extensive period of instruction, with the giving of a mantra.  But the intimacy of the relationship and the authority of the teacher are clear.  Unquestioned yielding to the preceptor's counsel in all things is demanded.  This is no democratic, dialogic encounter between equals.  The guru is presumed not only academically to have mastered the content of that which is to be conveyed, he has experienced deliverance and insight through it.  Thus the person who is without a teacher is likened to one who has been led to a desolate place, devoid of comfort or companionship, and left with his eye bandaged.2 In all facets of the tradition it is assumed that the guru is necessary to one's spiritual progress.

            Despite the fact, however, that the teacher may wield a virtually absolute control over the life of the disciple, it is not to be judged that he does so without regard to the particular qualities and circumstances of the pupil.  The Upanishadic model is eloquent: "Narada approached Sanatkumara and said, "Teach me, Venerable Sir."  He said, "Come to me with what you know.  Then I will teach you what is beyond that."3 The teacher is not merely dispensing content, he is instructing a person, and it would seem presumptuous to begin such a relationship without determining his pupil's condition.  Swami Akhilananda, for many years leader of the Vedanta Society in Boston and Providence, elaborates in these words, "When he (the guru) tries to impart suitable methods for spiritual practices and training to the disciple, he makes his mind completely free from all preconceived thoughts and ideas: and, consequently, he can immediately understand the very nature of the disciple.  He can also understand the distinct qualities of that particular mind."4

 

            From this initial awareness it is also clear that the teacher may only proceed in response to the student's willingness to assume the relationship.  This is seen with Vivekananda in reminiscences of Vivekananda recorded by Sister Christine (Christian Greenstidel of Detroit).  She writes how his spiritual guidance of those who had elected to become his disciples was wholly dissimilar to his normal manner of relating to friends and acquaintances.  "Friends," she writes, "might have a narrow outlook, be quite conventional, but it was not for him to interfere.  It seemed as if even an opinion where it touched the lives of others, was an unpardonable intrusion upon their privacy.  But once having accepted him as their guru, all that was changed.  He felt responsible.  He deliberately attacked foibles, prejudices, valuation...."5 Sister Christine elaborates on the variety of tactics which Vivekananda employed to stimulate the growth of each disciple as he assessed their different temperaments and needs.  The method could be quite gentle but also harsh, often involving what is depicted as a frontal assault on traditional ideas and pet foibles.  His intensity was overpowering for some, who related better to other swamis who succeeded him.  Yet Vivekananda cultivated no slavish dependence.  He laid down principles, but expected his disciples to make their own application of them.  "Stand upon your own feet," he thundered.  "You have power within you!"  Christine comments, "His whole purpose was not to make things easy for us, but to teach us how to develop our innate strength."6

 

Friendships

 

            Relationships with Westerners, however, were more characteristically friendships.  These began with members of the Hale family in Chicago.  He was profoundly grateful for their initial hospitality, and the ties with them continued at a warm and charitable level for years.  They remained close friends.  He alluded playfully to the Hale's strong Christine allegiance, regularly referring to Mrs. Hale in correspondence as "Mother Church," and to her husband as "Father Pope."  But it was not a disparaging or sarcastic reference.  He stated in another letter that he regarded Mrs. Hale as "a true Christian," and the quality of the communications between Vivekananda and this couple and their daughter, Mary, were most respectful and intimate."7 The playful quality emerges in other settings.  In his second visit to America, he retired from a heavy speaking schedule to a retreat setting in northern California for a few weeks in the spring of 1900.  Ida Ansell, who became a devoted follower with the Sanskrit name of Ujjvala, describes how he gained some respite from illness by cooking for the small group, making an Indian curry, showing them how to grind spices, merrily laughing with them all the while.  He was particularly charmed with Mrs. Hansborough, one of the Mead sisters who had come to San Francisco with him from Los Angeles.  She was used to roughing it, having traveled in Alaska with less than first class accommodations.  "Her care-free spirit and indifference to convention pleased him," Miss Ansell's account recalls.  "One day when she was eating something, he helped himself to a portion from the same plate, and remarked, "It is fitting that we should eat from the same plate, we two vagabonds."8 Perhaps he was conveying to her a variation of the title of sannyasin, his own identity, and perhaps this quality of spontaneous freedom was what characterized his friendships generally.  There was a vagabond spirit to it, which contrasted with the more formalized nature of the guru-disciple relationship. We may think of 'vagabond' as an equivalent to the spirit of the sannyasin, then, and interpret his fulfillment of that role as that which may generally describe the nature of friendships.  These, at their highest level, are extremely open and trusting, spontaneous.  In the company of your best friend, you can trust yourself to be yourself, and a quality of childlikeness, or lila, emerges.

 

Sister Nivedita

 

            The dynamics of how these two contrasting roles played out in the life of Vivekananda are best illustrated by attention to his relationships with Margaret Noble, who became Sister Nivedita, "the dedicated," and Josephine MacLeod.  The first exemplified the teacher-disciple relationship, the second, the intimate bond of friendship.  I am relying here a great deal on letters from the files of the Trabuco Monastery of the Vedanta Society in Southern California, to which I was given access many years ago.  These letters, to my knowledge, have not been published prior to that time or since, apart from some which I included in my book from the 1970s, The Swan's Wide Waters:  Ramakrishna and Western Culture.9  They provide, however, along with other sources, a rich corpus of material which humanizes Swami Vivekananda and two of his closest associates.

            Margaret Noble was from Britain.  She had met Vivekananda in London, and he clearly conveyed a magnetic appeal to her before she came to India to join him in 1898.  She had not, however, joined the small group of J.J. Goodwin, Captain and Mrs. Sevier, Henrietta Muller, Mrs. Ole Bull and Josephine MacLeod, who had come with him at the end of 1896, or shortly thereafter.  Miss Noble related how little she really knew Vivekananda till she traveled with him in India.  She had determined to go there, employing her background as a teacher, to work with him in women's education.  Initiated as brahmacharya shortly after her arrival in January of 1898, he introduced her to Calcutta as "a gift of England to India," and gave her this charge:  "You have to set yourself to Hinduize your thoughts, your needs, your conceptions and your habits.  Your life, internal and external, has to become all that an orthodox Hindu Brahmin Brahmacharini's ought to be.  The method will come to you, if only you desire to sufficiently.  But you have to forget your own past, and to cause it to be forgotten.  You have to lose even its memory!"10  From the time of her entry into India, she made every effort to live up to this counsel of her master, and this is most clearly shown in her book,  The Web of Indian Life, with its perceptive and intimate detail of the country which she came so to love.  There is some indication that Vivekananda's rather severe demands on her were to counteract her previously strong and uncritical British patriotism.  If that is so, then his directives to her might be seen as a kind of spiritual prescription, conveyed as guru out of his awareness of her particular need.  Nevertheless, the extent to which she totally severed her ties with her previous spiritual identity is not clear.  A few months after Vivekananda's death in 1902,  The Madras Times recorded the following question and response:  "I suppose that your position in the Church of your early years ceased when you entered upon the work in which you are presently engaged?  "No," was the reply, "I have never broken with my position as a member of the Church of England nor is there any reason why I should do so."11 Formally, it would seem, it was important not to renounce the identification with Christianity, but to interpret the new affiliation as fulfilling rather than destroying that relationship.  Practically, it meant, for Nivedita, as for no other Western worker, the assumption of a wholly new life style, gained at the expense of considerable pain in divesting herself of her former identity.12

            At one level, Nivedita's Indianization process may be viewed as a charming accommodation to the customs of Hindu life, eating with the fingers, etc., in obedience to Vivekananda's counsel, "Remember:  If you love India at all, you must love her as she is, not as you might wish her to become!"13  In another sense, that obedience seemed to compel her to abdicate critical judgments which she might have exercised.  The Indian Social Reformer quoted her shortly after her arrival in suggesting that this might be limited.  She said, "Religion is for the heart of the people.  To refine it is to emasculate it....The man who derives brutal satisfaction from life, or who sees no further than the surface of things, this man has a right to these satisfactions, and to make for himself a worship which shall express these instincts.  The man who is violent in his modes of thought, and vivid in his apprehension of life, the man who appreciates the struggle of Nature, and is strong enough to plunge into it fearlessly, that man has a right to offer to God that which he hourly demands from God."  For the Indian Social Reformer this was revivalism with a vengeance, appearing to sanction the worst excesses of Kali worship14.  But if she did, under Vivekananda, become a thorough revivalist, it was not an easy transformation for her.  As she was preparing her biography of Vivekananda, The Master As I Saw Him, she wrote to her intimate friend, Miss MacLeod, and said, "I am bringing out very strongly the element of struggle between me and him, and this by the advice of the Man of Science (Dr. J.C. Bose, whom Vivekananda had met in Paris, and to whom Nivedita was closely related in the decade before her death).  It seems egotistical I fear, but I think on the whole that this is the true advice."15 The struggle indeed emerges in the volume.  If the renunciation which followed on her part, however, seems to a Western observer a personal capitulation, it led to a truly heroic record of service in her writings, her educational work, and the social service which she championed.  A strong, independent spirit is manifest also in the separate path which she chose following the death of Vivekananda, apart from the Movement itself, centered in Belur.

            The struggle was not unrelieved, however, and joy radiates from her remembrances of the time with Vivekananda in her letters to Josephine MacLeod (also called Joe by Vivekananda, Tantine (which means Aunt or Great Aunt, to many younger persons) in the Movement, and by the particularly intimate name of Yum to Nivedita.  At Easter in 1904, two years after Vivekananda's death, she wrote, "Oh Yum, I do pray that I may be allowed to go on doing this!  I never want to leave India.  While I am here, I am sure that I am in the right place.  Can't you look into the future, and assure me that I shall be allowed to go on and on, quietly sowing the seed that Swamiji has left?"  Again, she wrote, "I am utterly satisfied, utterly at peace....I feel sure at last that my feet are on the right path, the path blessed and approved by him, and that the only question now is whether I shall work adequately or inadequately along the lines he has given me.  This peace comes largely from finding the written work so much more powerful than the spoken, so that I am not anxious because my work is done at my desk."16

 

            Two years later other letters are still more celebrant of the quality of her life with Vivekananda and Josephine MacLeod:  "Oh how I wish I could run to you for a chat, whenever I wanted to stop working.  Do you remember those sweet days beside the Shalimar?  How wonderful love is!  It makes one open out and unfold one's whole nature to the listener!  How much of everyone's happiness that year, dear Yum, depended on the love you brought!"  And again, "Do you know why I am sitting chattering here?  Just to make that more real.  Those talks under the trees in the morning, that evening in the veranda as the storm came on!  Yum Yum we had the best, you and I, and what you and Sister Sara (Mrs. Bull) have seen in his attitude to India, no other American ever had a glimpse of."17 There was clearly no jealousy between these most intimate women associates of Vivekananda; only a profoundly shared joy at what they had known with him.  If Nivedita, in what appears to be a classic model of a disciplic relationship with Vivekananda, was asked to give up a great deal, it seems to have brought to her great gifts of peace and joy in remembering the blessed days in his company.

 

Josephine Macleod

 

Josephine MacLeod had first heard Vivekananda in New York in 1895, in company with her sister and Francis Leggett, who was soon to marry her sister.  Vivekananda subsequently visited Leggett's country estate in New Hamphshire, and it was there that their close friendship began.  Once while the Swami was conducting the Sunday service, he saw Miss MacLeod in the front row, fast asleep.  After the service, as he was shaking hands with members of the congregation, Miss MacLeod appeared and extended her hand in greeting.  The Swami with a grave face asked, "Did you sleep well?"  Both laughed heartily.  The familiar, warm comfort of friendship had been established.18 Vivekananda attended the wedding of Leggett and Mrs. Sturges, MacLeod's sister, in Paris later in 1895.  Miss MacLeod seems to have joined his entourage, then, for a time in London, from which Vivekananda wrote to Francis Leggett the following year.  The letter is to "Frankincense," another of his pet names, and he expresses his appreciation of Miss MacLeod's services.  "The Galsworthys have been very kind.  Joe brought them about splendidly.  I simply admire Joe in her tact and quiet way.  She is a feminine statesman...She can wield a kingdom.  I have seldom seen such strong yet good common sense in a human bring."19

 

 She seems to have remained with him more than any of his Western followers during the next few years till his death.  While Sister Nivedita's death also came prematurely, in 1911, Josephine MacLeod remained till her death at the Movement's Hollywood Center in 1949 at the age of ninety an unusually effective friend and international ambassador for the movement.  Through many visits to India and contacts in the West, raising funds, stimulating interest in, among other persons, Romain Rolland-who began his research into the lives of Ramakrishna and Vivekananda after meeting her-she perpetuated the influence of her friend and his Master, Ramakrishna.  Two letters of Swami Shivananda in India to Tantine in 1927 tell of Rolland's inquiries to Belur and his gratitude to her for her success in interpreting the greatness of these men of India to him.20

 

Two of her letters to Mary Hale, in 1913 and 1916, reveal something of the personal warmth and vitality which made her such an effective advocate for the Movement.  "No one," she writes, "who has every been very near Swamiji or Margot (Nivedita) is ever far from me - Don't you feel this too?...Life never seemed to me so full - big fundamental things that are worthwhile cropping up all along the line these days....When one has something active and creative to do this world seems young, doesn't it?  It's only the people who follow who get bored."  Again, "Such a dear letter came from you this last post-showing that the heart-throb of your life is the same as mine-no matter what the external trappings may be-That is what we always felt in you-and that is why in our hearts we always include you-I don't believe there can be much of a mistake in any of our lives-in the lives of us who recognized Him, as long as we keep that shrine....I mean to be on earth many a year yet!"21 As indeed she was.  Few persons have been able to move so freely and with such authenticity between the spiritual realms and cultures of East and West as did Josephine MacLeod, and the movement's indebtedness to her is profound.

 

 

            Perhaps the most vivid description of Josephine MacLeod and her relationship to Vivekananda was given by Swami Atulananda, who joined the Vedanta Society at age 30 in 1899 in New York under Swami Abhedananda.  He was born C.J. Heijblom, and he remained in the movement until his death in 1966 at the age of 97, spending almost all of his last 50 years in India.  He had known and traveled with Vivekananda and the others in the early days.  Hear the picturesque depiction of Josephine MacLeod in his 1939 letter to Ida Ansell:  "Dear Tantine, she has helped and loved many, and no one has 'caught' her.  Not even Swamiji.  She plays with her work as her toy.  And plays with the Lord.  Really she is a great lover though she imagines she is a  jnani (The Trabuco files record that Nivedita wrote Miss MacLeod in 1904 that the Holy Mother had told them that Miss MacLeod was a jnani.) She loved Swamiji but always danced one step ahead of him.  He never changed her external life.  She loved and played and went her own sweet way-the way that suited her own game.  Shakti-the dancing Kali.  And Siva not even able to catch her dancing feet.  I hope that they will put her photo in the Math.  Never shall I forget her ringing voice to a most humble devoted audience, 'Swamiji cleaned my shoes!'  That is Tantine.  And yet, watch her slip away to `Swamiji's room and shut the door.  What is she doing there, all alone, with no audience?  She is fooling us all, dear Tantine.  What a memory for the Math she'll be.  Who, I wonder, will write her life?  Who ever knew her?  I guess Swamiji knew her best...I am glad I have loved you both.  Don't hurry off too soon.  I'm still needing you, your gentleness and Tantine's strength.  You must remember that Tantine always says, 'I'm not Swamiji's disciple, I'm no one's disciple.  I was his friend.  I never asked him a question, I never asked him for anything.'  Only the other day I heard her say, "I feel as if Swamiji is just around the corner.'  Tantine once asked Nivedita what Swamiji stood for.  She said, 'Renunciation.'  Mrs. Sevier, when asked, said, 'Union.'  'To me,' Tantine said, 'he stood for Freedom."22

 

Conclusion

 

Vivekananda, then, appeared to have given immeasurable gifts of lasting proportions to those whom he knew in the West.  Some chose the path of accepting him as guru, and this could be demanding, as with Nivedita, yet by their own testimony, richly rewarding.  Others, such as Josephine MacLeod, claimed friendship, not discipleship, treasuring the independence which seemed most true to their own natures.  The spirit of the sannyasin, with all its implications of freedom, was not a role which he claimed for himself without according that freedom to others.  He accepted disciples, and assumed their close governance in the traditional role of guru.  If Nivedita's story is typical, they must have discovered their own truest selves in this teacher-pupil bond.  For others, such as Tantine, needing a larger space, this was freely accorded, even treasured.

 

 

            How, then, do we learn who Swami Vivekananda was?  One very important index, I would submit, must be found in the quality of his relationships with his closest associates.  In Margaret Noble and Josephine MacLeod, he met two remarkable women with a thirst for awareness of the East.  He communicated the wealth of its wisdom to them most authentically, through the force of his own personality, as teacher and friend.

 

 

Notes:

 

1              William T. deBary, ed., Sources of the Indian Tradition, vol. 1, New York:  Columbia University Press, 1958, p. 225.

 

2              S. Radhakrishnan, The Principal Upanishads, London:  George Allen and Unwin, 1953, 463, 464.

 

3              Ibid., p. 468.

 

4              Swami Akhlilananda, Hindu Psychology, New York:  Harper and Row, 1946, 193.

 

5              Sister Christine, The Memoirs. 210.

 

6              Ibid., 212,213.

 

7              Swami Vivekananda, Collected Works, vol. 8.  Calcutta:  Advaita Ashrama, 1962.

 

8              Ida Ansell, "On Recording Vivekananda's Lectures," Vedanta and the West, January-February, 1955.

 

9              Hal W. French,  The Swan's Wide Waters:  Ramakrishna and Western Culture.  New York, 1974.

 

10            Sister Nivedita,  Notes of Some Wanderings with the Swami Vivekananda.  Calcutta:  Udbodhan Office, 1957, 310.

 

11            From  The Bengalee,  28 December 1902.  In Sankari Prasad Basu and Sumil Bihari Ghosh, eds.,  Vivekananda in Indian Newspapers, 1892-1902.  Calcutta:  Dineschandra Basu Basu Bhattacharya and Co., 1969, 283.

 

12            French, 99, 100.

 

13            Article by Nivedita in The Bengalee a reprint from  The Hindu, in Basu and Ghosh, 293.

 

14            The Indian Social Reformer, 21 May 1899, in Basu and Ghosh, 454.

 

15            Margot (Nivedita) to Miss MacLeod, 6 March 1906.  Trabuco Files.

 

16            Nivedita to Miss MacLeod, Wednesday of Easter Week, 1904, and 24 January 1906.

 

17            Margot to Yum from Calcutta, 21 February 1906, and June 1906.

 

18            Swami Asheshananda, Glimpses of a Great Soul:  A Portrait of Swami Saradananda.  Hollywood:  Vedanta Press, 1982, 22.

 

19            Vivekananda, Letters of Swami Vivekananda.  Calcutta:  Advaita Ashrama, 1960, 353.

 

20            21 September and 2 November 1927.  Trabuco Files.

 

21            28 December 1913 and  8 February 1916.  Trabuco Files.

 

22            11March 1939. Trabuco Files.



[1] 1          William T. deBary, ed., Sources of the Indian Tradition, vol. 1, New York:  Columbia University Press, 1958, p. 225.