Emma Calvé (1858 – 1942) was a well-known French female opera soprano of the Belle Époque. These are the recollections of her interaction with Swami Vivekananda(1863-1902). This article first appeared as Chapter XXII of her autobiography “My Life“, and has also appeared in the Nov 1922 issue of the Prabuddha Bharata(Awakened India) magazine.
(The rest of the article is in the words of Emma Calvé)
It has been my good fortune and my joy to know a man who truly “walked with God”, a noble being, a saint, a philosopher, and a true friend. His influence upon my spiritual life was profound. He opened up new horizons before me, enlarging and vivifying my religious ideas and ideals, teaching me a broader understanding of truth. My soul will bear him eternal gratitude.
This extraordinary man was a Hindu monk of the order of the Vedantas. He was called the Swami Vivekananda, and was widely known in America for his religious teachings. He was lecturing in Chicago one year when I was there, and as I was at that time greatly depressed in mind and body, I decided to go to him, having seen how he had helped some of my friends.
An appointment was arranged for me, and when I arrived at his house, I was immediately ushered into his study. Before going I had been told not to speak until he addressed me. When I entered the room, therefore, I stood before him in silence for a moment. He was seated in a noble attitude of meditation, his robe of saffron yellow failing in straight lines to the floor, his head swathed in a turban bent forward, his eyes on the ground. After a brief pause he spoke without looking up.
“My child,” he said, “what a troubled atmosphere you have about you! Be calm! It is essential!”
Then in quiet voice, untroubled and aloof, this man, who did not even know my name, talked to me of my secret problems and anxieties. He spoke of things that I thought were unknown even to my nearest friends. It seemed miraculous, supernatural!
“How do you know all this?” I asked at last. “Who has talked of me to you?”
He looked at me with his quiet smile as though I were a child who had asked a foolish question.
“No one has talked to me,” he answered gently. “Do you think that is necessary? I read in you as in an open book.”
Finally it was time for me to leave.
“You must forget,” he said as I rose. “Become gay and happy again. Build up your health. Do not dwell in silence upon your sorrows. Transmute your emotions into some form of external expression. Your spiritual health requires it. Your art demands it.”
I left him, deeply impressed by his words and his personality. He seemed to have emptied my brain of all its feverish complexities and placed there instead his clear and calming thoughts.
I became once again vivacious and cheerful, thanks to the effect of his powerful will. He did not use any of the ordinary hypnotic or mesmeric influences. It was the strength of his character, the purity and intensity of his purpose, that carried conviction. It seemed to me, when I came to know him better that he lulled one’s chaotic thoughts into a state of peaceful acquiescence, so that one could give complete and undivided attention to his words.
He often spoke in parables, answering our questions or making his points clear by means of a poetic analogy. One day we were discussing immortality and the survival of individual characteristics. He was expounding his belief in reincarnation, which was a fundamental part of his teaching.
“I cannot bear the idea!” I exclaimed. “I cling to my individuality, unimportant as it may be! I don’t want to be absorbed into an eternal unity. The mere thought is terrible to me.”
“One day a drop of water fell into the vast ocean,” the Swami answered. “When it found itself there, it began to weep and complain just as you are doing. The great ocean laughed at the drop of water, ‘Why do you weep?’ it asked. ‘I do not understand. When you join me, you join all your brothers and sisters, the other drops of water of which I am made. You become the ocean itself. If you wish to leave me, you have only to rise up on a sunbeam into the clouds. From there you can descend again, a little drop of water, a blessing and a benediction to the thirsty earth.'”
With the Swami and some of his friends and followers, I went upon a most remarkable trip through Turkey, Egypt, and Greece. Our party included the Swami; Father Hyacinthe Loyson; his wife, a Bostonian; Miss MacLeod of Chicago, an ardent Swamist and charming, enthusiastic woman; and myself, the song bird of the troupe.
What a pilgrimage it was! Science, philosophy, and history had no secrets from the Swami. I listened with all my ears to the wise and learned discourse that went on around me. I did not attempt to join in their arguments, but I sang on all occasions, as is my custom. The Swami would discuss all sorts of questions with Father Loyson, who was a scholar and a theologian of repute. It was interesting to see that the Swami was able to give the exact text of a document, the date of a Church Council, when Father Loyson himself was not certain.
When we were in Greece, we visited Eleusis. He explained its mysteries to us and led us from altar to altar, from temple to temple, describing the processions that were held in each place, intoning the ancient prayers, showing us the priestly rites.
Later, in Egypt, one unforgettable night, he led us again into the past, speaking to us in mystic, moving words, under the shadow of the silent Sphinx.
The Swami was always absorbingly interesting, even under ordinary conditions. He fascinated his hearers with his magic tongue. Again and again we would miss our train, sitting calmly in a station waiting-room, enthralled by his discourse and quite oblivious of the lapse of time. Even Miss MacLeod, the most sensible among us, would forget the hour, and we would in consequence find ourselves stranded far from our destination at the most inconvenient times and places.
One day we lost our way in Cairo. I suppose, we had been talking too intently. At any rate, we found ourselves in a squalid, ill-smelling street, where half-clad women lolled from windows and sprawled on doorsteps.
The Swami noticed nothing until a particularly noisy group of women on a bench in the shadow of a dilapidated building began laughing and calling to him. One of the ladies of our party tried to hurry us along, but the Swami detached himself gently from our group and approached the women on the bench.
“Poor children!” he said. “Poor creatures! They have put their divinity in their beauty. Look at them now!”
He began to weep. The women were silenced and abashed. One of them leaned forward and kissed the hem of the robe, murmuring brokenly in Spanish, “Hombre de Dios, hombre de Dios!” (Man of God!). Another, with a sudden gesture of modesty and fear, threw her arm in front of her face as though she would screen her shrinking soul from those pure eyes.
This marvellous journey proved to be almost the last occasion on which I was to see the Swami. Shortly afterward he announced that he was to return to his own country. He felt that his end was approaching, and he wished to go back to the community of which he was director and where he had spent his youth.
A year later we heard that he had died, after writing the book of his life, not one page of which was destroyed. He passed away in the state called samadhi, which means, in Sanskrit, to die voluntarily, from a will to die, without accident or sickness, saying to his disciples. “I will die on such a day.”
Years later, when I was travelling in India, I wished to visit the convent where the Swami had spent his last days. His mother took me there. I saw the beautiful marble tomb that one of his American friends, Mrs. Leggett, had erected over his grave. I noticed that there was no name upon it. I asked his brother, who was a monk in the same order, the reason of this omission. He looked at me in astonishment, and with a noble gesture that I remember to this day. “He has passed on.” he answered.
The Vedantas believe that they have preserved, in their original purity and simplicity, the teachings of Hinduism. They have no temples, saying their prayers in a simple oratory, with no symbolic figures or pictures to stimulate their piety. Their prayers are all addressed to the Unknown God.
“O, Thou who hast no name! O, Thou whom none dare name! O, Thou the Great Unknown!” they say in their supplications.
The Swami taught me a sort of respiratory prayer. He used to say that the forces of the deity, being spread everywhere throughout the ether, could be received into the body through the indrawn breath.
The monks of the Swami’s brotherhood received us with simple, kindly hospitality. They offered us flowers and fruits, spreading a table for us on the lawn beneath a welcome shade.
At our feet the mighty Ganga flowed. Musicians played to us on strange instruments, weird, plaintive chants that touched the very heart. A poet improvised a melancholy recitative in praise of the departed Swami. The afternoon passed in a peaceful, contemplative calm.
The hours that I spent with these gentle philosophers have remained in my memory as a time apart. These beings, pure, beautiful, and remote, seemed to belong to another universe, a better and wiser world .
A couple of videos reminiscences of Swami Vivekananda.
1. Emma Calvé. My Life (D. Appleton & company, 1922) pp 185-194; Prabuddha Bharata, November 1922. See online version at vivekananda.net
- For more on Swami Vivekananda, see http://www.vivekananda.net
- Anandamayi Ma as the Guru
- The Mother Mirra Alfassa as a Guru
- Sri Aurobindo’s interaction with an American soldier during World War II
- Sri Aurobindo’s 1947 meeting with two French visitors
- Silviu Craciunas has a dream of Sri Aurobindo
- Early mystic experiences of Sri Aurobindo
- Some disciples of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother
- Sri Ramakrishna’s occult contact with Sri Aurobindo
- Ramana Maharshi on World War II