OLD DIARY LEAVES, Fifth Series (1893-96)
by Henry Steel Olcott
VIVEKÂNANDA, BOMBAY, PANCHAMAS
BEFORE sending the pilot ashore and cutting myself loose from Europe and its affairs, I want to say a word about a man who addressed his London public within a few days after my departure from Marseilles, homeward bound. I refer to the Swami Vivekânanda, one of the most talented, forceful, and successful of modern Hindu religious agitators. He, himself, has so fully written and spoken about his passing connection with me at Madras, confined, I believe, to a single interview, that it is needless for me to dwell upon the subject. I may only say that he did not impress me as a person with whom it would be easy to get on in an independent capacity, nor did he impress me with having any belief in the existence of our Masters, which I attributed to the fact of his being an uncompromising Vedântist. He had, however, a precious gift which it is a pity is not more generally shared by modern Hindus, viz., earnestness. He was all that and, moreover, vehement in the enunciation of his ideas. What his impression upon the English
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public was is shown in the following report taken from the Standard, which I happen to have at my hand. The statements that he was a Brahmin and that he wore the robe of a Buddhist priest are, of course, erroneous, but such details are of small importance. The paper says:
“Since the days of Ram Mohun Roy, with the single exception of Keshub Chunder Sen, there has not appeared on an English platform a more interesting Indian figure than the Brahmin who lectured in Prince’s Hall on October 22. Clothed in the long orange-colored robe of the Buddhist priest, with a monk-like girdle round his waist instead of the usual Indian cummerbund, and wearing the massive turban of Northern India on his head, the Swami Vivekânanda discoursed for an hour and a quarter in the most faultless English, on the cardinal doctrines of the school of religious philosophy to which he is devoting his life. The name by which he makes himself known is a name assumed, on his becoming an apostle of his school, in the style of many philosophers and doctors of antiquity in the Middle Ages. As the Chairman, Mr. E. T. Sturdy, explained, the first of his names is a Sanskrit word signifying ‘Master,’ and the second is also a Sanskrit term signifying ‘the bliss of discrimination’. The lecture was a most fearless and eloquent exposition of the pantheistic philosophy of the Vedânta school, and the Swami seems to have incorporated into his system a good deal also of the moral element of the Yoga school, as the closing
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passages of his lecture presented, in a modified form, not the advocacy of mortification, which is the leading feature of the latter school, but the renunciation of all so-called material comforts and blessings as the only means of entering into perfect union with the supreme and absolute Self. The opening passages of the lecture were a review of the rise of the grosser form of materialism in the beginning of the present century, and the later development of the various forms of metaphysical thought which for a time swept materialism away. From this he passed on to discuss the origin and nature of knowledge. In some respects his views on this point were almost a statement of pure Fichteism, but they were expressed in language, and they embodied illustrations and made admissions, which no German transcendentalist would have made or used. He admitted there was a gross material world outside, but he confessed he did not know what matter was. He asserted that mind was a finer matter, and that behind was the soul of man, which was immovably fixed, before which outward objects passed, as it were, in a procession which was without beginning or end—in other words, which was eternal, and finally which was God. He worked out this pantheistic conception of the personal identity of man and God with great comprehensiveness and an ample wealth of illustration, and in passage after passage of great beauty, solemnity, and earnestness. ‘There is only one soul in the Universe,’ he said, ‘there is no “you” or “me”; all variety is merged into the absolute Unity, the one
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infinite existence—God.’ From this, of course, followed the immortality of the soul and something like the transmigration of souls towards higher manifestations of perfection. As already stated, his peroration of twenty minutes was a statement of the doctrine of renunciation. In the course of it, he made some remorselessly disparaging criticisms on the work that factories, engines, and other inventions and books were doing for man, compared with half a dozen words spoken by Buddha or Jesus. The lecture was evidently quite extemporaneous, and was delivered in a pleasing voice free from any kind of hesitation.”
His was, unquestionably, a strong and striking personality. He made a profound impression at the Chicago Parliament of Religions, and by his lecturing tour called into being a body of warm adherents and disciples, who hold his memory dear to the present day and who have for his sake, primarily, and afterwards for their own merits, given welcome and patronage to such of his co-disciples of the Râmakrishna Mutt who have subsequently visited the United States. Who can say what might have happened in India if he had not been prematurely snatched away from a field of labor that promised to yield a good harvest.
Now to come back to the good ship “Irawaddy” which was bearing me homeward. We had ideal weather throughout the whole voyage. I note that hardly a single passenger was seasick, so it may be imagined that the voyage down the Mediteranean was as calm as a pond. They even asked me to lecture
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on Theosophy which, for a French maritime audience, is the best possible proof of their immunity from physical discomfort. On the 16th (October) I held a conversation on Theosophical matters and occult science which occupied some three or four hours. Naturally such of us passengers as could, slept on deck every night, for this was the hot season and the cabins were stuffy. On the 17th we reached and left Port Said, and at the other end of the canal my old friend, Captain Dumont, Traffic Superintendent of the Suez Canal, came aboard to see me. The fine weather followed us down the Red Sea but the mercury began to climb up in thermometer, and from the 21st until we reached Aden it stood at about 95 degrees Fahrenheit. On the 22nd we reached Obock, a French settlement on the African Coast, discharged freight and some passengers, and lay until 4 a.m. on the 23rd, when we left for Djibouti, also a French settlement, in Abyssinian territory, which the French have made their chief coaling station, so as to free themselves from the necessity of going to Aden for the purpose.
At 5 p.m. we left for Aden, reaching there the next day. The passengers for Bombay were here transferred to “La Seyne,” a smaller steamer of the French Company, and we sailed in her at 1 p.m. and immediately began to experience rough weather, for we had now come within reach of the monsoon. The majority of our passengers, who had been so cheerful since leaving Marseilles, now succumbed to the miseries of sea-sickness. I enjoyed immensely the company of one
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of the ship’s officers, a native of Gascony and one of the brightest, jolliest fellows I had met in the course of my travels. He took with the greatest good humor my remarks about the characteristic traits of his countrymen, as illustrated in the D’Artagnan of Dumas, and the Tartarin of Daudet. He even went so far as to sing for me that delicious song, “Si la Garonne avait voulu,” in which the limitless possibilities within reach of the great river of Gascony are most humorously specified. If the Garonne had only chosen to do so, it seems, it could have turned its course in any direction of the compass, crossing continents, deserts, other rivers and seas as far as the North Pole or, if it preferred, could have traversed Europe and Asia to empty itself in whatsoever distant sea it liked. I do not think there exists a more clever illustration of the pure gasconade which takes its name from the province of Gascony.
We reached Karachi at 10 p.m. on the 29th and anchored. The majority of our passengers left us the next morning. We were busy all day taking in cargo, but the monotony of the time was charmingly broken by a volunteer concert given by the wife of the local agent of the Messageries Company. She was a splendid pianist and vocalist and a more exquisite performance than hers I never enjoyed. The steamer sailed at 6 p.m., with a smooth sea and fine weather, which kept with us all the next day and until we reached our destination, Bombay, where we came to anchor at 12 noon on the 1st of November.
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Through a misunderstanding as to the time of my arrival no one came aboard to meet me, so, after waiting two hours, I took a boat to the landing and went up to our headquarters, where I attended a lecture on “Lalla Rookh” by that learned Parsi scholar, Shamsool Ulema Ervard Jivanji Jamshedji Modi. By request the venerable Parsi scholar, K. R. Cama, and I made some remarks at the close. It appears from an entry that I find in my Diary for the 2nd of November, that the remarks which I made on the subject of the duty of the Parsis to their religion made a strong impression on them. The address formed a new tie between that community and myself. I shall have something more to say on this subject a little later. On the 2nd I attended the Thread Ceremony of the son of my friends R. K. Modi, and was glad to find that the interpretation given by Theosophy made clear the importance and mystical value of the ceremony.
That evening I lectured at headquarters on the “Mission and Future of Theosophy,” and, later, saw the Hindu play of “Harischandra” extremely well done at the Parsi theatre. This dramatic composition has for me a perennial interest, and although I have seen it many times yet I am always glad to see it once more. For in all literature there is no more sublime conception of heroic devotion to honor than this story of the Indian King, prototype of the Biblical Job, but infinitely superior as a literary concept.
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Some hours of the next day (Sunday, November 3rd) were devoted to a private conference with Dr. Jivanji about the interests of the Parsi religion. It seemed to me simple enough to carry out the scheme of an organised Parsi exploration fund, and if I had been a Parsi I am quite sure that I should have carried it through and obtained great results, years ago. It always saddens me to think of the golden opportunity wasted by this intelligent, enterprising, and wealthy community in face of the splendid harvest of archæological discovery made by the Christian backers of Professor Flinders Petrie. However, we must let karma do its work.
I presided that afternoon at a lecture in our hall on “Jainism,” given by Mr. Gandhi, the Jain delegate at the Parliament of Religions, and whom I found, in my late American tour, to have made so favorable and lasting an impression in my native country. Unfortunately for the interests of his religion and for the enlightenment of the world on that speciality, he has died in the prime of life and the full activity of his mental powers. A pathetic feature of his case is that he died within a few months after being admitted to the English Bar. None of the representatives of India who have lectured in Western countries came out of the ordeal more creditably, nor preserved throughout a more clean and admirable record of personal conduct.
The next day was devoted to the receiving of visitors and the bidding of farewells. In the evening a large number of our kind friends bade me adieu at the
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Victoria Terminus station and I left by train for Madras. The monotony of the journey was broken by the being ferried across a river in flood which had recently destroyed a grand stone bridge: over another river the train passed at a snail’s pace on a temporary bridge. On the 6th (Wednesday) I reached home and found it looking as charming and fresh as it always does to me upon my return from foreign travel. My old enemy, the gout, lay in wait for me, and by taking possession of my hands effectually prevented my doing any writing myself; so I had to resort to dictation. Being able to walk, however, I could get around and superintend the building works, which are always in progress at Headquarters. This time we were tearing down the walls of H.P.B.’s temporary kitchen upstairs, to make a new bedroom, then greatly wanted.
On the 13th I received a letter from the Secretary of His Excellency, Lord Wenlock, Governor of Madras, saying that he would visit my Pariah School, the precursor of the rest, and would come and have a look at our library. The appointment was duly kept and His Excellency expressed himself as extremely well satisfied with what he saw. I remember an incident that was rather amusing. A class of Pariah children were being examined in Arithmetic: the teacher would give out the sum, the pupils write it down on their slates and when they had worked it out would lay their slates on the floor at our feet and stand at attention; we would examine such as we chose and then dismiss the class to their seats. At the extreme right
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of the class of boys was a pudgy little chap, with very dark complexion, large, agate-like eyes and a winsome smile. The Governor and I noticed how he kept himself on the alert when the sum was being given out, and how he flung himself into the work when the dictation was completed and he had to make his calculations. Among the early ones to finish the sum and lay the slate upon the floor, was our little pigmy outcaste. I do not remember exactly the sum but it was something like this: “Divide £279 l3s. 11d. by 5.” The Governor picked up the little boy’s slate and found, on reference to the Key in the master’s hands, that the calculation was correct. When the boys were going back to their seats he whispered in my ear: “I am quite sure that I could not have done that sum myself in double the time.” Altogether, those of us who were responsible for the school felt very happy that it had passed so well the test of inspection by the highest functionary of the Madras Presidency.
The next day His Excellency’s Private Secretary sent me the text of his remarks to the Managers and Teachers of the school, of which the following is a copy:
“His Excellency thanked Colonel Olcott for giving him the opportunity of inspecting his school which he was pleased to hear from the report was doing such good work. From a close study of the problem of how best the amelioration of the Pariah and lower classes could be brought about, he was satisfied that there was no step which could be taken with more
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likelihood of success than that of education. He did not believe that any heroic measure could be undertaken by Government which would be successful, but he believed that by the gradual introduction of education, the lower classes could best be helped to help themselves. By this means they would be enabled to take their part on a more equal footing with the rest of the population, and that though this would be a work of time, he fully believed that an amelioration in the condition of the Pariahs would eventually be brought about by this means. It was therefore a matter of especial satisfaction to him to visit this school this morning and see for himself how the experiment started by Colonel Olcott was progressing. He wished to express his thanks to Colonel Olcott for all that he had done and while congratulating him on the success which had so far attended his efforts, he sincerely hoped that his school would long continue to carry on the good work which it had started so auspiciously.”
The strong common sense shown in this brief but pregnant address will strike the reader. Lord Wenlock puts his finger upon the pivot of the whole Pariah question, for it is by education alone that their unhappy lot can be ameliorated; only thus can they learn how to help themselves. No Government in the world can lift a great body of five millions of people from the degradation of brutish ignorance to the dignified condition of a self-respecting, self-sufficient community, save by passing their children through the
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schoolmaster’s hands. It was the realisation of this fact which induced me to try the experiment of the free Panchama schools. The kindly hope expressed by His Excellency that the schools for Pariahs might be successful has happily, as we all know, been fully realised. Instead of one school which I had then, we now have four and all prosperous and most promising. The one discouraging fact in connection with the work is that with very, very few exceptions, the high-caste Hindus have shown no disposition whatever to take upon themselves the merited reproach of the wretched condition of the Pariahs, and to give me practical proof of their sympathy and good will in my work. They have simply held aloof and let me struggle on as best I can, seemingly quite indifferent whether I succeed or fail. Some of my esteemed colleagues have even gone so far as to say to third parties that it was very doubtful if my time was not being wasted in trying to uplift the Pariahs, for they were intellectually incapable of being given any marked degree of culture. What makes this the more remarkable is that these very people are staunch believers in evolution, and must know that however little may be the uplifting of the Pariah pupil in this incarnation it, at least, makes it much easier for the entity to take a long stride in advance during his next rebirth.
Before leaving Bombay I had been asked by the venerable Mr. K. R. Cama to put in writing the views verbally expressed to him with respect to the best way to subserve the interests of the Zoroastrian religion.
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This promise I redeemed on the day after Lord Wenlock’s visit and sent the manuscript to the printer. The subject is too important, however, for me to bring it in at the close of a chapter and so it will be continued in our next.