It was August 27th 2012… Standing on the banks of the Ganges at the Ramakrishna math Belur, I whispered a prayer to my God – “In gratitude for this day… & every day that has passed bringing me here… and every moment that awaits to carry me higher, deeper and beyond… In gratitude to my parents, my guru Mahatria, my family, my friends, my team, my entire support system… In gratitude to the divine three Sri Ramakrishna, Sarada mata & Swami Vivekananda for entrusting the making of this 52 part television series on the life of Swami Vivekananda to me… In surrender to the divine play that at once makes me proud and humble, smile and tear, be exuberant and yet dissolve so deeply into that core… I have no clue why I was chosen to direct this serial – my return after ten long years… I have no clue how it will unfold – feels like a dream… and I most certainly don’t know in what all ways my life will change living in such close proximity to the thoughts of such an inspiring soul Swami Vivekananda… I pray, my divine friend, let that holy spark inspire each and every one of my audience into a healthy, wealthy, happy, blissful and peaceful life… May that divine energy revive the spirit of India… May that story help us understand that each one of us has a role to play in the becoming of humanity… In surrender and faith that my dreams will come true…”
The very first schedule was elevating in so many ways. The entire project spread across 22 months. The year long telecast coincided with the 150th Birth anniversary celebrations across the globe with the last episode providentially being telecast on June 7th 2014 – the day after Swamiji’s Mahasamadhi.
My first exposure to Swami Vivekananda was when I was in college, an essay titled ‘The secret of work’ from his Chicago address. Then, it was intellectual curiosity – trying to understand his thought processes. Twenty years later, when I was asked to direct a television serial on the life of Swami Vivekananda for Krishnaswamy associates, I was thrilled. The impact of Swami Vivekananda on the intellect of man has been well exposed. However to me the thrill in the making of the serial was the opportunity to connect with his feelings and emotions – what were his doubts, how did he feel when he was with his Guru Shri Ramakrishna, what must have been his most dominant feeling as he stood in front of the delegates at the Chicago conference representing an ancient wisdom he had truly experienced and not merely read about. My personal journey evolved from intellectual understanding to experiencing life through the eyes of Swamiji.
I remember a story from the Ramayana. Ravana had captured Sita and had donned many a role to try and capture her heart, blessed as he was to take any form. But in vain. Ravana’s minister suggests to him why not don the garb of Rama for Sita would yield only to Rama’s form. Ravana immediately replies “Oh I did try that. But the purity of Rama is such that when I merely take his form for a few seconds, I am unable to even think anything wrong!”.
To me this entire series has been a cleansing experience where those few minutes trying to experience the world through the eyes of the enlightened trio of Sri Ramakrishna, Sarada Devi and Swami Vivekananda has transformed the way I live my life. As a director, I have attempted to translate that feeling in such a way, that when you watch the life of Narendra unfold, the magical moments of his life’s experiences can flow through all of us to lead us to a better way of life.
The treatises on the Sanatana Dharma, his transformation from agnostic philosophies to enlightened Master, his walk through the doubts of a human to the courage of divinity, his earthly cries and heavenly pleas, his innocent smile and fiery eyes – every thing about Swami Vivekananda has a vibrating urgency to spread the fire of life. But to me the most dominant feel will remain his surrender to the Goddess and his devotion to his Master.
Living through the moments of Sri Ramakrishna shedding tear when he sees Narendra visiting him for the first time on the banks of the ganges, as I stood in the very same corridor they must have stood hundred odd years ago, made my eyes brim with unshed tears – ‘what a spirit he must have been to create a desire in his enlightened master to crave for such a disciple?’ The moments when the Master visits his disciple’s home because he cannot seem to stay away… the times the Master travels to uninvited places ignoring insults just to see his blessed disciple… The questions Naren asks refusing to take just his Master’s words – wanting proof, wanting experiences, wanting validations… The sheer magnificence of that relationship (if it can even be called that), of the Guru and his sishya is purifying to say the very least.
After such excitement in Naren’s visits, for several weeks in a row the Master ignores him. But that doesn’t change anything for Naren. When Sri Ramakrishna asks “I have ignored you for so long, why do you still come?’, Naren replies with a smile ‘I respect you and love being in your presence. How can what you do or not do change that for me?’ The Master smiles to himself, his disciple is indeed mature!
One sequence I found hard to direct was when Naren asks his Master for a divine experience. The Master has been unwell and the disciples stay with him to look after him. Everyone of his twelve disciples have divine experiences during that time – except Naren. He observes how others seem to slip into a trance, weep with gratitude, sing and dance in ecstasy – but he himself has no such experiences. In the early morning hours he goes to his master and says ‘Everyone seems to have such divine experiences. Why am I alone not having them?’ Sri Ramakrishna reminds him that he had indeed given Naren such an experience of Nirvikalpa samadhi earlier and assures him many more will follow. But Naren is not convinced. He wants to have it again – now. He requests his Master to help him slip into such a state. The Master replies ‘Let me get well. I will then help you with that experience’. And Naren’s reply made me pause! I could deeply relate to his answer, the innocence, the anxiety, the sheer longing to feel one with the divine. And yet his words can easily be construed as selfish, petty and certainly not becoming of the revered enlightened soul we have constructed in our human minds. It is so difficult to attribute human qualities to one who has already gained divine ones. Yet human he indeed was – not just then, even when he was stranded on foreign soil with no clue where his next meal would come from, even when he stood in front of the audience of the Parliament of religions in Chicago having postponed his talk three times right through the inaugural day, when he lost his sister in suicide, when he got trapped with a bunch of ‘Nara Bali’ human sacrificers – and so many many more times right through his life. He was never ‘not human’. He just ensured every human experience, through the choices he made, nudged him closer to divinity. He fought for women’s emancipation when his own sister fell prey to torture in her marital home. He ensured people understood the true meaning of being spiritual is rising beyond both routine rituals and entertaining miracles – it was only for the elevation of the human spirit. He turned every personal loss and experience to a better understanding to help the whole of humanity.
‘Let me get well. I will then help you with that experience’ says Sri Ramakrishna. The longing for his union with the divine makes Naren reply – ‘What if you die before you can give me that experience? Give it to me right now…’ The craving and crying from the very depth of his being pours out as words to his Master. The Master wonders ‘Does he really think I am just this body? Doesn’t he yet realise that whether embodied or not, I will continue to carry him through?’ Seeing the deep longing in his disciple’s eyes, the Master asks ‘what exactly do you want?’. Naren replies ‘I just want to be in that state of trance, in Nirvikalpa samadhi forever! Occasionally I should regain the waking state to just look after this body and keep it alive. But for rest of the time I simply want to be lost in that divine experience.’ Sri Ramakrishna’s words are a whiplash on his ardent sishya. ‘I thought you were a much more loving soul… that could see the pitiable condition of his fellow humans… realise that they don’t even know how to live life, are unable to find peace… that you will help them understand true divinity, redeem them from the clutches of the devil of animalistic thought & rituals… that you will be a leader among men to transform the way humanity awakens to divine possibilities! O! But you seem to have only a personal agenda! You are simply here for your own salvation. How very disappointing…’
As I read the lines my heart cried. I could feel with Narendra… I could sense his longing, his desire for nothing else but union with the Goddess. I almost whispered to Sri Ramakrishna in my mind ‘Don’t be so harsh on him. That is not what he meant!’ If I, who merely reads the story can feel so deeply, would the master not have known… Sri Ramakrishna’s words make Naren freeze. In a whisper, with just his eyes flooding and the rest of him locked in a statue, he replies – ‘I am not seeking this because I want to run away. But I don’t think I have it in me to be the kind to leader you think I will be. I don’t think I am capable of awakening humanity to light.’ Sri Ramakrishna, tenderly holds Naren’s face in his palm, looks deeply into his eyes to say ‘Trust me. You were born to transform this world. And that state that you ask me today, will be a permanent state in your life – a state you can attain at your will anytime”.
The Master knows – not in the way we comprehend knowing as in words or images – but a knowing from deep within his soul, unfettered by time and space. It is not like a prediction for the future locked in time, but an inner knowing that transcends language, logic or desire. It is not a process – bells ring and lights come on type! It is not a hypothesis or even a visualisation. It is a knowing that tells him one of his sheep has grazed far away.
O Narendra ! I salute you not because you became a Swami Vivekananda showcasing my culture to the world… I salute you not because you brought spirituality away from the caves to the common man… I salute you because in your surrender to your master, in your elevation from an agnostic youth to the most renowned disciple, in your willingness to be moulded from a questioning intellect to a receptive reservoir for the eternal wisdom to flow, in your devotion with which you uttered every syllable of your Master’s name, in your being the Narendra to Sri Ramakrishna so that a Swami Vivekananda could be revealed, you have made my being blossom to the possibilities that await with every step I take in becoming a better disciple !
Written by Gita Krishna Raj | Published in infinithoughts in May 2015