“Two weeks after her sudden departure for California, Swami Vivekananda praised Joe’s detachment, as noted in a letter from Betty to Joe, written October 27:
He spoke of “Joe” and said you were the only real soul who had “attained freedom among us all,” including himself. You could drop everything, everybody and go out without a thought of regret & do your work, that you had attained this through thousands of reincarnations, he had seen it in India & here. No luxury counted, no misery (as in India) mattered – [you were] the same poised soul, etc.
We were all so glad we knew you!!!””
This book once landed on my hands and slipped by. I had to wait for about another year to get it again and go through page by page, word by word. A biographical work on Josephine MacLeod, perhaps the single-most important person in Swami Vivekananda’s movement after himself, has been penned down by Linda Prugh of the Vedanta Society of Kansas City. It is perhaps impossible to imagine the limitlessness of Josephine’s life without bringing into focus, Swami Vivekananda’s vedantic message to the west, its propagation, and his work for the upliftment of the Indian society. Before meeting Swami Vivekananda, Josephine’s life is a relentless preparation, an anticipation of a divine force and when the wait ends, Tantine’s life is set to become Vivekanandaesque.
“On the twenty-ninth of January 1895, I went with my sister (Betty) to 54 West 33rd Street, New York, and heard the Swami Vivekananda in his sitting room where were assembled fifteen or twenty ladies and two or three gentlemen. The room was crowded. All the armchairs were taken, so I sat on the floor in the front row. Swami stood in the corner. He said something, the particular words of which I do not remember, but instantly to me that was truth, and the second sentence he spoke was truth, and the third sentence was truth. And I listened to him for seven years and whatever he uttered was to me truth. From that moment life had a different import. It was as if he made you realize that you were in eternity. It never altered. It never grew. It was like the sun that you will never forget once you have seen it.”
In Indian philosophical tradition, a great significance is attached to the preparedness of the student. Only a completely ready student can extract the best out of a teacher who is a siddha (a realised soul). The story of Nachiketa continues to underline human’s greatest asset – inquisition. Even after being offered all the wealth and pleasures of the world, Nachiketa holds on to his question on the matter and meaning of life and death. An unprepared student, could have easily fallen for the materialistic offerings proposed by Yama. However, Nachiketa like Arjun of Dronacharya, has unflinching focus on the question he wanted answered from death himself. Linda Prugh has beautifully showcased the preparatory stages of Josephine’s life in the initial pages of the book and later, has brought before us the complementary aspects of Josephine’s personality vis-à-vis those of Swami Vivekananda’s. Josephine succeeds in getting her answers as does Nachiketa.
A great deal of emphasis has been given to the readiness of Josephine. Beginning with a brief note on Swami Vivekananda’s life, his introduction to America, and his emergence on the world stage through World’s Parliament of Religions in 1893, the writer switches to the birth of Josephine and the age she was born in. Wading through the culture of American families of the time, Linda Prugh explains how the upbringing of daughters and sons differed at the time. In the 19th century America, ‘mothers trained their little girls in many of those skills which they would need when married. Girls were taught how to manage and decorate a household, and how to sew and do fine handwork, such as embroidery. They were also taught the niceties of life, such as how to write thank you notes and pour tea properly. And since they were taught not to speak too loudly or too much, many of them developed the fine art of being good listeners. It was through such training that girls became “young ladies”.’
Women were made to understand that they were the weaker sex and needed men to carry out certain tasks, like climbing up on a horse carriage, lifting a heavy package or opening a door; the aristocratic woman’s goal was to find a suitable husband whom she could look up to and depend on for the rest of her life. The routineness of such practices is so embedded in our genes that for many of us, they would not sound outrageous even today and can easily pass as a norm. However, there are certain fortunate ones who “stumble into a family that gives freedom.”. Josephine’s life wasn’t supposed to follow a traditional linear trajectory. She was to become “great without the help of any man” as Swami Vivekananda would one day say of her.
In Josephine’s own reminiscences of the initial days– “We never spoke to [the swami], had nothing much to do with him; but during that spring we were dining one night with Mr. Francis H. Legett, who later became my brother-in-law. “Yes, we can dine with you but we cannot spend the evening with you,” we had told him. “Very well,” he answered, “just dine with me.”
When dinner was over, he said, “Where are you going this evening?” We told him we were going to a lecture; and he asked, “Mayn’t I come?” We said, “Yes.” He came, he listened; and when it was over, he went up to Swamiji, shook hands with him, and said, “Swami, when will you dine with me? And it was he who introduced us to Swami socially.””
The writer takes us tangentially to the 19th century America and Europe while discussing Josephine’s life and travels. The immediate outcomes of Josephine’s freedom was her tendency to live the life of a nomad. Her travels with and without Swami Vivekananda have been described with a vividness, a reader would enchantingly fall for and a writer would creatively aspire for. Due to her nomadic nature, she came face to face with most of the celebrated names of the time including playwright Bernard Shaw, Nobel laureate Romain Rolland, Opera singer Madame Emma Calve, Japanese scholar Kakuzo Okakura and due to her intelligence and common-sense, was revered by all of them.
The book is rife with details of the meetings, the lectures, the summer stays, the hardships of the movement, and beyond all, Josephine’s role amidst all of these. She stood as a rock on which even the great Swami Vivekananda relied heavily. With Josephine, we also get to understand Swami Vivekananda’s influence on other notable people associated with him. We get to see Betty’s life, Margaret Noble’s (Sister Nivedita) inner strife about her life’s purpose before jumping into India’s freedom struggle, and Sister Christine’s efforts towards girl education in India. A great grief befalls the friends and disciples as Swami Vivekananda passes away in 1902. A compelling read follows about how each one dealt with the setback and found his/her way again through sorrow and disenchantment with life and its purpose. This literary work is a divine lake wherein the reader can rove through eternity till his heart is buoyant with bliss.
I would hold this book as one of the most important ones in the study of history of India for several reasons. One, while it starts with the life and times of Swami Vivekananda and Josephine MacLeod, it goes on to touch upon many subjects of utmost relevance for the Indian educational and cultural reforms, economic development, and most importantly, the freedom struggle.
Two, the writer has on the sidelines of Josephine’s life carved out a story of the path of the Ramakrishna Mission and how through the help of several European and American disciples and friends of Swami Vivekananda, the movement took shape in spite of the blockades it had to face in the hands of the British regime and domestic envy it received from the popular reformist movements of the time. Three, it presents a very telling tale of the difficult path Sister Nivedita had chosen to dedicate herself to towards the cause of India. While she was warned adequately by Swami Vivekananda about the anomalies that existed in the Indian society at that time and was told how India needed service but no ridicule from the people who wanted to help her, she makes India her own to a degree that she once said – “My life is given to India. In it I shall live and die.” That she did die in India, helping our great scientist Jagadish Chandra Bose in his most difficult times, helping Aurobindo Ghosh and other revolutionaries in their struggle towards freedom of India, arousing the countrymen through her speeches and writings, serving the inflicted during the great plague of Bengal, or establishing a school for girls – is something that this country must not forget. Maybe it is too late for me to say that. We seem to have forgotten a few people already – is something that this book reminds us through its pages on Josephine’s monetary, administrative, and emotional interventions in the Indian narrative.
If you are looking for one reason to read this book, it is freedom. Josephine never married, she perhaps never needed to. She was as boundless in death as she was in life. I add death for a reason that you will find out in the concluding chapters of the book. What degree of freedom you get depends on what degree of freedom you want and are ready to fight for. Josephine’s life is a tale of freedom, exclusive and absolute. It was this propensity for freedom that perhaps drove her to mention several times in her life that she was Swami Vivekananda’s friend and not a disciple. She perhaps considered the friendship to be a greater bond than discipleship. The book starts with this question, ‘Josephine – Friend or Disciple?’ and concludes comprehensively by the time you reach the other side of it.
Sister Nivedita once wrote to Josephine – “[Vivekananda] said that the difference between you and everyone else lay in the fact that others had matured since he had met them – but you were ‘fully developed’ before he ever saw you.”
A more intriguing statement was made by Josephine’s niece Lady Sandwich – “She was not Swami’s friend but ‘HIM’.”
The life of Josephine MacLeod is the story of a free soul and the stories of free souls must be told and retold, for freedom is what all of us are after, knowingly or unknowingly – it is freedom that completes us. The pied-piper takes us to the unwavering stream where love and freedom meet. Take a dip and you will only be yearning for love and freedom thereafter.
You may purchase the book here.