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Swami Vivekananda’s quirky time sense

July 27, 2012

The Ramakrishna Math and Mission founded by Swami Vivekananda has developed the reputation for integrity, transparency and also for promptitude and punctuality. They are known to start all their events and functions on time without waiting for any dignitary. This focus on maintaining time and being punctual was something that Swamiji stressed that the Organization had to follow. Though Swami Vivekananda laid down strict rules and regulations for the Organization, there were many instances in his life when he did not always follow them. This was especially true when it came to being punctual. Swamiji understood the American need for punctuality, order and diligence and how they had incorporated them into their life and social system. He understood that many of them were obsessed with timeliness. This cultural trait is evident even today and the Indian disregard for ‘time’ would sound unacceptable to the Americans. One of Swamiji’s American devotees, Thomas Allan wrote in his memoirs about an incident that took place on March 25, 1900. Allan wrote, “A lecture at Union Square Hall, Post street was advertised to begin at 3 pm. But at 3 pm, Swami was not there. We waited and wondered what to do, and concluded that we must just wait. Several times I went out on to the street to see if he was visible. At last, at about 3.30 pm, I saw him slowly walking up. I went and met him and walked with him towards the Hall. On the way we had to pass a shoeshine stand, and when Swami saw that the shoe-shiner was idle, he went up to him to have his shoes polished. I was silently fidgeting thinking about the people who had come to hear the lecture, but my fidgeting did no good. At last, Swami got on the platform and was again introduced to the audience which had more or less patiently waited for him.”

There were many other such instances as well. Once Rev. Benjamin Fay Mills, the pastor of the Unitarian Church in Oakland, California said to Vivekananda on his way back to San Francisco from Oakland, “Swami, we must hurry to get the train.” Without showing any anxiety, Swamiji asked him, “Is there not another train?” There were also instances when he missed his train as he had refused to hurry to catch them. Once an impatient American devotee, afraid of missing a steamer, said to him, “Swami, you have no idea of time.” He calmly replies, “No! You live in time; we live in eternity!”

It is indeed difficult to reconcile with the adherence for timeliness that the Ramakrishna Order has developed. This must have come from Swami Vivekananda himself, a glimpse of which can be seen from one of his letters. “Whenever you promise to do any work, you must do it exactly at the appointed time, or people will lose their faith in you”, he wrote to Swami Brahmananda in 1895 from England. Though it may look like Swami Vivekananda did not practice what he preached as far as maintaining time is concerned, we need to view it from a different paradigm. For Swamiji, life was a continuum, with no beginning or end. In the relative sense of time, he may have not always stuck to it, but one can see the pace at which his life’s work unfolded. Though he knew that at a personal level as a monk he could be relaxed in not enforcing punctuality on himself, he could not afford to be so when it came to the larger Organization.

Kannada version in Prajavani (02-Aug-12)

Balu