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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 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 concerns and topics of high society discussion, its aloofness to the world outside, its court life and its encounters with the 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, 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, arrived at the gate of Sundarama Iyer unannounced. Iyer’s 12-year-old son thought the visitors were both 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 road, the Swami had not eaten 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 had 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 interesting episodes. At the club, he had an encounter with a Brahmin dewan peshkar, a senior revenue official of the principality, who took objection to the way the Swami had returned his salutation. 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 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 experience 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 “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 give public talks 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 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 in 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 much more pressing, reason why the Swami wished to go to the place of Bhattacharya. Ever since he left Bengal, especially during his 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. The Swami pointed out that the 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 of keeping a written record 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 was engaged in while in Travancore were lost to posterity.

Perhaps that speaks a lot about our own lack of a sense of history…!

One thought on “Eating fish and sanyasa: Vivekananda’s travels in Travancore

  1. This is an interesting piece especially when you recall that Vivekananda called Kerala a land of lunatics!

    But I think the last point is very important. I do think we have a lack of sense of history and we Indians are not good at documenting anything at all. But in India unlike the West, I feel history surrounds us and the residue of the past is always felt in the present.

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