There is the familiar Swami Vivekananda,
and there is the unfamiliar Swami Vivekananda. The former many of us know as
one of India's greatest spiritual ambassadors to the West. Sankar's book, aptly
called The Monk as Man, deals with his more intimate side.
As Narendranath, he is one of 10 children,
born into a wealthy Bengali family. He scores low in his BA exams, is so
attached to his mother that in America he was to say, "Our mothers are
great! ....to bring me into the world, she underwent great penance.
Swami Vivekananda with monks
For years before my birth, she kept her
body, mind, food, clothes, and senses pure... so she deserves to be
worshipped." He makes trips and pilgrimages around India and the world: to
America, Dhaka, Kamakhya, Shillong and the Belur Math; and finally leaves his
body in July 1902, fighting financial hurdles almost to the day of his death.
All of these details are presented by Sankar in the first chapter called 'A
Monk and his Mother' but in a cluttered and incohesive manner.
In the second chapter 'Emperor, Monk and
Cook', the author overwhelms the reader with facts on Vivekananda's culinary
tastes. Swami loves jighebagas, a sweetmeat and kachuris; he is enamoured by
French cuisine. He's as good a cook as he's a connoisseur of good food. As a
youngster he sets up a cookery club called 'The Greedy Club', and, says Sankar,
"He was the only Indian who had the courage and the foresight to
simultaneously promote Vedanta and Biryani in the West." A whole chapter
is devoted to Vivekananda's love of tea and another, on his health.
Swami Vivekananda with Ramkrishna Mission monks
suffered from 31 ailments
Shankar describes Swami Vivekananda's
health problems using a Sanskrit quote 'shariram byadhimandiram' --- the body
is the temple of diseases. Ironically, Vivekananda used to emphasise greatly on
physical strength and is known for the shocking statement 'Better to play
football than read the Gita'.
One of the perennial problems that
Vivekananda lived with was chronic insomnia and in a letter to Shashi Bhushan
Ghosh dated May 29, 1897, he confided "I never in my life could sleep as
soon as I got into bed."
The previous year, Vivekananda seemed to
have written to his 'dhira mata' (Sara Bull) from New York complaining about
his lack of sleep. "My health has nearly broken down. I have not slept
even one night soundly in New York since I came ... I wish I could go to the
bottom of the sea and have a good, long sleep."
It is also known that Vivekananda used to suffer
from diabetes like his father and at that time suitable drugs were unavailable.
Shankar writes that Vivekananda had tried different modes of treatment ranging
from allopathic, homoeopathic to ayurvedic and had also taken advice from all
kinds of quasi-medical experts from various countries.
He narrates that in the summer of 1887,
Vivekananda (whose real name was Narendranath Dutta) had fallen very ill due to
over-strain and lack of food. During this period, he also suffered from
gallstones, and acute diarrhoea. Later, during the same summer, he came down
with typhoid and problems in the urinary tract.
"Narendranath's abdominal pains were a
source of great anxiety," Shankar says.
Shankar wonderfully chronicles the various
medical problems Swami Vivekananda faced during his stint as a wandering monk
in the country and across the world, and why he cut short his journey in Cairo,
Egypt, to return to India.
Swami Vivekananda at the World Parliament of Religions
It was to French operatic soprano Rosa Emma
Calvet that Vivekandanda had declared in Egypt that he would die on July 4.
"Swami Vivekananda's eyes filled with
tears. He said he wanted to return to his country to die, to be with his
gurubhais," Shankar wrote.
The fateful evening of July 4, 1902,
Vivekananda passed away following a third heart attack, completing 39 years,
five months and 24 days.
The feeling as you put down the book is
that content as interesting as this (who wouldn't like to know the human side
of a monk?) could have been made more readable had it been presented more