Adversity is the true test of character. It does not take much strength to live in times when everything goes our way. It is only when things go wrong and we are constantly challenged by the circumstances around us will our true nature emerge. Talking about ideals and trying to live them is indeed easy when we are not challenged by existential questions every day. The true test of our convictions is when we are able to still retain our ideals and live by them when we are tested each and every day.
Young Narendra’s life was also no exception. He had just lost his father and was exposed suddenly to the grim reality of facing life and all the challenges that it brings along. His father’s death had placed his entire family in a desperate condition. When he was alive, Vishwanath Datta had lived a life where he had always spent more than what he earned. This meant that Narendra had to suddenly cope with the problem of creditors from whom his father had borrowed money. Narendra had no income but had to maintain 7-8 people now. The days that followed were of intense suffering. Narendra was suddenly thrown from comfort and security to dire poverty and the threat of facing starvation. Despite such trying times, he managed to continue his law studies. In college he was the poorest of the poor. Shoes were a luxury and his garments were made of the coarsest cloth. There were many days when he went to his classes without food. He would often become faint with hunger and weakness. His friends would occasionally invite him to their homes. He would happily chat with them, but when food was offered, the vision of the desolation at his home would come up in his mind and prevent him from eating. He would leave with the excuse that he had a pressing engagement elsewhere. On reaching home, he would eat as little as possible so that others might have enough. His mother Bhuvaneshwari used to recall the sacrifices made by him after his passing away in 1902. He would refuse to eat on the plea that he had already eaten at the house of a friend, when the fact was, he did not eat at home for fear of depriving his mother and others of a full meal. Despite all this poverty and suffering, he was still his usual happy self.
Pride also prevented him for disclosing his problems to anybody and even his close friends did not realize what was happening. Many of them mistook his losing weight as a result of exaggerated grieving for his father. Many of his relatives also turned into enemies and started eying their ancestral house. They filed a case in a local court to deprive them of the property. The whole family had no place to stay and had to shift to Narendra’s grandmother’s house. As is the case with litigation in India, this case also dragged on for a long time and this further worsened the situation. The case was finally decided in favor of Narendra’s family and they secured their legal share of the property. But by the time the family returned to this house, Narendra had already renounced the world and taken up sannyasa.
Narendra often related the experiences of these days and Swami Sharadananda recalls him saying once, “Even before the period of mourning was over, I had to go about in search of a job. Starving and barefooted, I wandered from office to office under the scorching midday sun with an application in hand, one or two intimate friends who sympathized with me in misfortunes accompanying me sometimes. But everywhere the door was slammed on my face. This first contact with the reality of life convinced me that unselfish sympathy was a rarity in the world – there was no place in it for the weak, the poor and the destitute.” Swamiji’s legendary concern for the poor and the downtrodden was born out of these experiences and possibly shaped his thinking and future actions.