Saturday, May 3, 2008

Eating Fish and Sanyasa: Vivekananda’s Travels in Travancore

THE OTHER day, I came across a very interesting document, an account of Swami Vivekananda’s visit to Thiruvananthapuram in December 1892. It was written by K Sundarama Iyer, a senior officer in the education department who was a tutor to the crown prince Marthanda Varma, almost 20 years after the visit. The long narrative, named Reminiscences of Swami Vivekananda, is appended to the four volume book, The Life of Swami Vivekananda, published by Advaita Ashramam, in 1961.

It is a long narrative, a very fascinating and evocative one, as it brings to life not only the personality of this great sage but also the life in Travancore at the turn of the 19th century; its pet concerns and topics of high society discussions, its aloofness from the world at large, its court life and caste prejudices, its uneasy encounters with modern ideas of the time.

The Swami was on his tour of south India, as every monk from time immemorial used to do, going from place to place, immersing themselves in the sacred waters in four corners of the country, visiting pious householders, accepting their obeisance and giving them advice and then moving onto the next place…

So one day, the Swami accompanied by a Muslim peon in the Cochin state service, arrives at the gate of Sundarama Iyer, unannounced. Iyer’s 12-year-old son took the visitors to be Muslims because of the peculiar kind of dress the Swami had, and told his father so. The peon was accompanying the sage from Cochin as a guide on his trip to Travancore.

They had left Ernakulam two days earlier and on the way, the Swami had not imbibed anything except for a little milk. It is not clear which route they took, whether they traveled by foot or took a boat as a major part of the route is easily covered by water. Both travelers were weary as they reached Thiruvananthapuram but the Swami insisted that his attendant be cared for before he took anything from the household. By our standards, it was an unusual journey because the Swami came unannounced, as a complete stranger, without making any arrangements beforehand for his stay or meetings.

During his nine-day stay in the city, Vivekananda made many acquaintances, met many people and addressed many small gatherings. His meeting with the elite of the city at the Trivandrum Club and his audience with the Maharajah are very interesting episodes. At the club, he had an encounter with a Brahmin dewan peshkar, a middle level revenue official of the principality, who took objection to the way the Swami had returned his salutation merely uttering ‘Narayana’ as is customary with sanyasins. But the Swami who had noticed the way the man had returned the salutation of another officer of a lesser caste, showing off his caste supremacy, asked him how he could discriminate against another person and then demand equal treatment for himself: the man had no answer…

Then there was the meeting with the Maharajah himself. The Swami in his tours had been the guest of many an Indian prince, and had a wide experience meeting them, talking to them and advising them on statecraft and other matters. But in Travancore, the meeting with the Maharajah lasted just two or three minutes as the author tells us and he continues, “the Swami was a little disappointed”.

The Swami’s Travancore visit was a few months ahead of his historic visit to Chicago where he addressed the Parliament of World Religions in September 1893. Curiously, the Swami was reluctant to address public meetings and all his meetings were either dialogues or conversations in small groups. Sundarama Iyer says that he once requested the Swami to address a meeting to which he replied that he had never before spoken in public and would “surely prove a lamentable and ludicrous failure.” But in spite of his reluctance to address public gatherings, Vivekananda was preparing himself for the coming address and when asked how he would face the gathering at Chicago, he cryptically remarked that “if it was the will of the Supreme that he should be made His mouthpiece and do a great service to the cause of truth and holy living, He surely would endow him with the gifts and qualities needed for it.” Surely Sundarama Iyer thought Swami was being evasive (if God could help him in Chicago why not in Travancore…?) May be he was not willing to address a meeting at Travancore, that was all.

On the third or fourth day of his visit, the Swami made inquiries about the whereabouts of Manmathanath Bhattacharya, an officer of the Madras Government who was on an official tour to Travancore. As the Swami expressed a wish to shift to the fellow Bengali’s place, Sundarama Iyer was naturally reluctant to let him go, and the Swami pacified him saying that “we Bengalis are a clannish people.”

He also told him that Bhattacharya was a class-mate and that his father Pandit Mahesh Chandra Nyayaratna was a famous scholar in Bengal. But there was another, perhaps more pressing, reason why the Swami wished to go to the place of Bhattacharya. Ever since he left Bengal, especially during his long south Indian tour, he was staying with Brahmin households where fish and meat were anathema. A quintessential Bengali, the Swami thought a little rice with fish was a welcome diversion even for an ascetic like him!

When Sundarama Iyer, a Tamil Brahmin of orthodox ways, heard this, he was flabbergasted. But the Swami pointed out to him that ancient Hindus were used to eating meat and they were also used to kill cows for their yagas and yajnas. He thought it was the habit of avoiding meat, which came with the rise of Buddhism, that made India lose her strength and paved the way for foreigners to conquer her. This line of argument, interestingly, resonates with the advice given to a young Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi by his Muslim friend in Rajkot, that to gain strength one should eat meat and encouraged him to do so…

Those nine days were eventful in a deep way, though surprisingly Sundarama Iyer or his other scholarly friends, who were engaged in long and passionate conversations with the Swami, never thought it necessary to keep written records of these daily meetings. In fact the author says he was writing from memory after a lapse of two decades and he confesses that many of the deep metaphysical discourses the Swami had been engaged in while in Travancore, were lost to posterity.

Perhaps that particular lapse speaks much about our lack of a sense of history…!


മഹേഷ് said...

An interesting post. Translate the memoir to Malayalam and puiblish it.

ybr (alias ybrao a donkey) said...

Swami Vivekananda wanted to justify his own weakness of craving for fish and flesh.

156 blogposts on Swami Vivekananda's practices .

Unknown said...

Sudhir Devadas writes in an email:

terrific insight into the human face of even such an evolved soul -clannishness, culinary temptation and its rationalisation..

however, the opinion on buddhism and vegetarianism seem unfounded... according to one version the buddha is supposed to have died due to indigestion caused by eating pork, given as biksha, mentioned even in such a major work as:

Old Path White Clouds: Walking in the Footsteps of the Buddha (Paperback) by Thich Nhat Hanh