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Narendra, the wandering mendicant

July 8, 2012

Slowly but surely the Ramakrishna Math was taking shape at the Baranagore Math. A brotherhood of the monks was taking root and the initial group was trying to live out the ideal of Sannyasa. Narendra used to live between Baranagore and Calcutta, trying to keep the flock together. Many of the monks did leave the monastery to lead a wandering life for some time but there was always a group of them at the Math. From July 1890, for nearly seven years, Narendra was himself absent.

Wandering and pilgrimage characterize the life of a Sannyasi. Narendra was also no exception and he became restless for traveling. Despite his resolve to nurture and grow the Math and brotherhood, he felt his attachment to his brother disciples as a chain – a golden one no doubt, but still a chain – impeding his progress to the realization of God. His restlessness finally made him resolve to travel and strike out into the unknown and uncertain path of a monk’s life. Though he was concerned by the frequent wandering of some of his brother monks, he once remarked, “Let them have their own experiences. They must break free from the monastery and test their own strength. Their experiences of the new life will make men of them, absolutely fearless and invincible, and spiritually independent; thus they will become giants.”

Until the middle of 1888, Narendra did not leave the Baranagore math except for short visits to nearby places. Upto mid 1890, he would venture out but return soon for some reason or the other. However, when he left the monastery in July 1890, he came back only in February 1897 after his triumphant return from the West. This was possibly the time that he made up his mind to break free from the bondage that he had built with the monastery and his brother monks. He had resolved to test his own strength and that of the others in the math. His need to experience another way of life where he was not sure of the destination or how long he would be gone, the uncertainty of one’s daily existence and what each day would bring proved a strong calling. It is only when we completely surrender our will to that of a higher power can we experience the ‘certainty in such uncertainty’ and Narendra wanted to learn of this first hand. He not only wanted to make himself fearless but also force his brother-disciples at the Math to stand on their own feet and become self-reliant. One can understand the struggle that he must have had within himself – on one side the need and desire to lead and build a team of selfless sannyasins, and on the other, his own growth and evolution.

As a wandering monk, his appearance was very striking and regal. People have described him as person with graceful movements who carried himself with dignity and confidence. His bright eyes and imperious personality made him conspicuous wherever he went. All that he had with him was his staff, a Kamandalu (water pot) and two books – the ‘Bhagawad Gita’ and ‘The Imitation of Christ’. Wearing the ochre clothes of the sannyasi, he quietly journeyed around the country. During these travels, Narendra did not really assume any name. These seven years of his life story have several blanks. Neither did he keep a journal or a note of his wanderings and the experiences that he may have had then, nor are there any authentic records available today. He spoke vaguely and sparingly of these times in his later talks and lectures. The little that is known are the times when other monks accompanied him or when people who met and were inspired by him kept records of his stay and conversations. There are also a few letters that he wrote to his brother-disciples and others during this time. These were the days when he concealed his learning and brilliance and wandered around like an ordinary monk. No one could guess that he had a good command of English unless he spoke in that language. There were days when he begged for his food door to door and there were times when he decided to accept whatever chance might bring. He once told that the longest time he went without any food then was five days. Many times his abode was a jungle, a temple or a ruined wayside rest-house. He had vowed not to touch money during these travels and he mostly went on foot. There were also times when his devotees bought him a railway ticket and he took the train. These wanderings for Narendra were possibly not only a way of discovering his own inner self, but also of understanding India and her problems first hand.

Kannada version in Prajavani (12-Jul-12)

Balu