Biography, Autobiography, Journal and Anecdotes
Part II - Autobiography
America, 1910 - 1912
I was transported by destiny from the world of lyric and poetry to the world of industry and commerce, on the 13th of September 1910. I bade farewell to my motherland, the soil of India, the land of the sun, for America the land of my future, wondering: "perhaps I shall return some day", and yet I did not know how long it would be before I should return. The ocean that I had to cross seemed to me a gulf between the life that was passed and the life which was to begin. I spent my moments on the ship looking at the rising and falling of the waves and realizing in this rise and fall the picture of life reflected, the life of individuals, of nations, of races, and of the world.
I tried to think where I was going, why I was going, what I was going to do, what was in store for me. "How shall I set to work? Will the people be favorable or unfavorable to the Message which I am taking from one end of the world to the other?" It seemed my mind moved curiously on these questions, but my heart refused to ponder upon them even for a moment, answering apart one constant voice I always heard coming from within, urging me constantly onward to my task, saying: "Thou art sent on Our service, and it is We Who will make thy way clear." This alone was my consolation.
This period while I was on the way, was to me a state which one experiences between a dream and an awakening; my whole part in India became one single dream, not a purposeless dream, but a dream preparing me to accomplish something toward which I was proceeding. There were moments of sadness, of feeling my self removed further and further from the land of my birth, and moments of great joy, with the hope of nearing the Western regions for which my soul was destined. And at moments I felt too small and little for my ideals and inspirations, comparing my limited self with this vast world. But at moments, realizing Whose work it was, Whose service it was, Whose call it was, the answer which my heart gave moved me to ecstasy, as if I had risen in the realization of Truth above the limitations which weigh mankind down.
When our ship arrived in the harbor of New York, the first land of my destination, I saw before me the welcoming figure of the statue of Liberty, an idol of rock, which I felt was awaiting the hour to turn into an ideal, awaiting the moment to rise from material liberty to spiritual liberty. Its wings suggested to me that it wanted to spread from national liberty to world liberty.
My first impression of New York, the city of modern grandeur, was that of a world quite other than those I had seen or known before. The grand, high buildings, the illuminations in all the shops, people moving about in crowds, conveyances running on three levels: tramways, subway, and elevators running overhead, people running at the station, each with a leather bag in his hand, and a newspaper. Everything seemed moving, not only the trains but even the stations, every moment filled with the rush of activity, calling to every sense, on the ears and on the eyes. It was removed from the land I had come from by a distance as wide as the expansion of the vast ocean which separated these two lands.
I soon began to try to get accustomed to the people, to the atmosphere, and to the country. And as I came of that people whose principal characteristic is adaptability, it was not too difficult for me to attune myself to the people and the conditions there. As the Message I brought was the Message of unity, it was natural that I should give proof in my own life of unity with people and conditions, however different and far removed. I saw in the people of America the sum-total of modern progress. I called it "the Land of the Day"; that for which Rumi has used in the Masnavi the word "Dunya", the worldly life, to which the word "Samsara" is equivalent in Hindi, I found there in its fullness.
The first opportunity I had of making the acquaintance of some people in America, was in the studio of Mr. Edmund Russell, who gave a reception where I met with some people among whom I found some responsive persons. I came to America with the Sufi Message, but the only means which I had to carry out my mission was by music, my profession, in which my cousin Ali Khan and my two brothers Maheboob Khan and Musheraff Khan assisted me. But my music which was most valued and admired as science and art, was put to a hard test in a foreign land, where it was as the old coins brought to a currency bank.
Now before me there was the question: how to set to work and in what direction? For the Message the time was not yet ripe, as I was at that time rather studying the psychology of the people than teaching. In a busy place like America where in the professional world already great competition exists, to have an opening for concerts or an opportunity to sing at the Opera seemed for the moment an impossible thing. I met with the well-known singer Emma Thursby who, being a great artist herself, became interested in our music.
My first address to the people of America was arranged at Columbia University in New York by Dr. Reebner, and there I found a great response. Dr. Reebner, the Head of Music at the University was most interested in Indian music and we became friends. Among the audience was Miss Ruth St. Denis who invented Indian dances of her own and was making a speciality of it, and for whom our music became as a color and fragrance to an imitation flower. She tried to introduce the Indian music on the program of her performance, which was to me as a means to an end. We had an interesting tour together throughout the States, and yet for the public, which was for amusement, our music became merely an entertainment. This was an amusement for them, and therefore painful for us. Also it was not satisfactory to combine real with imitation. However it helped to keep the wolf away from our door.
I once visited the house of Miss Ruth St. Denis after a long time and saw to my surprise that all the Indian things that were in her room as a decoration, had been removed altogether and in their place Japanese things were placed, which amused me. She then entered the room, in a Japanese kimono, which surprised me still more. I said to her, "Now I have found out the reason why you have not seen us for a long time. It seems you have forgotten India altogether." She said, "I am trying to forget it, though I find it difficult to forget. For now that I have to produce a Japanese dance, I do not wish to think of India any longer." It explained to me what influence the power of concentration makes upon one's life and work, that when the whole surrounding is inspiring a person with one particular idea, it creates in his soul the spirit of the desired object, and in this lies the mystery of life. I found Miss Ruth St. Denis an inventive genius, and I was struck with a witty answer she gave upon hearing my ideas about human brotherhood, uniting East and West. She said, "Yes, we, the people of the Occident and Orient may be brothers, but not twins."
Before ending our tour in the States I spoke at the University of Los Angeles, and to a very large audience at the Berkeley University of San Francisco where I met with a very great response, and where my lectures on, and my representation of Indian music and the presentation of its ideal met with a great interest.
At the end of my tour through the United States, when I arrived at San Francisco, I found the meaning of the scheme of Providence, that I was meant to come to San Francisco, a land full of psychic powers and cosmic currents, and begin from there the work of my Message. It is here that I found my first mureed Mrs. Ada Martin.
I was welcomed by Swami Trigunatita and his collaborator Swami Paramananda, who requested me to speak on Indian music to their friends at the Hindu temple, and was presented with a gold medal and an address.
I saw among the audience a soul who was drinking in all I said, as the Hamsa, the bird of Hindu mythology, who takes the extract from the milk leaving the water. So this soul listened to my lecture on music and grasped the philosophical points which appealed to her most. She thanked me, as everybody came to show their appreciation after the lecture. But I saw that there was some light kindled there in that particular soul. Next day I received a letter near to my time of departure from San Francisco, saying that this lady was immensely impressed by the Message, though it was given under the cover of an address on music and would most appreciate some further light on the path. I knew that she received the call, and wrote her that I regretted very much that I was leaving, but yet I could be seen at Seattle, a city at a considerable distance from San Francisco. I had a vision that night that the whole room became filled with light, no trace of darkness was to be found. I certainly thought that there was some important thing that was to be done next day, which I found was the initiation of Mrs. Ada Martin, the first mureed on my arrival to the West and, knowing that this soul will spread light and illuminate all those who will come in contact with her, I initiated her and named her Rabia after the name of a great woman Sufi saint of Basra, about whom so much is spoken in the East. Since her initiation she has entirely devoted her life to spiritual contemplation and the service of humanity.
After my return from San Francisco to New York, I stayed a while to be able to do some work and gave a few lectures at the Sanskrit College where I made the acquaintance of Baba Bharati, who preached the love of Krishna to the Americans. I made there the acquaintance of Mr. Bjerregaard, who afterwards wrote on my request the book called "Sufism and Omar Khayyam". He was the only student of Sufism known in New York, and he helped me to have access to the Sufi literature in the Astor Library, of which he was the head.
Ralph Perish, Miss Genie Nawn and Mrs. Logan were made mureeds, and later Miss Collins and Mrs. Eldering and also Mrs. Morrison. Among them there was a mureed who showed no end of respect, devotion and interest in the Cause, and yet there was something in him which voiced to me his hidden insincerity. He followed me for a considerable time, till his patience was exhausted. In the end he gave way to his weakness, admitting he could not go on any longer. I then found out that he had been sent by some society which collected the teachings of different secret orders, where initiations were given, its members entering somewhere or the other in every order of inner cult. It made me very sad, more for him than for me, to think how he wasted his time for nothing. He came, trying to steal something which can never be stolen. Truth is not the portion of the insincere ones. Sincerity alone is the bowl that can hold Truth.
I then called Mrs. Martin, who had by then progressed wonderfully – which consoled me – to whom the robe of Murshida was given; and the care of a grain of the Message, which was cast in the soil of America, was entrusted to her before I left the United States for Europe. She represented the Sufi Message at the religious congress in San Francisco at the Panama Canal World Fair.
During my stay in America for more than two years there was not much done in the furtherance of the Sufi Movement. From my stay in America I began to learn the psychology of the people in the West and the way in which my mission should be set to work. If I can recall any great achievement in America, it was to have found the soul who was destined to be my life's partner.
With the liberal idea of freedom in all directions of life and in spite of Abraham Lincoln's liberal example and reform, there is still to be found in America a prejudice against color which is particularly shown to the Negroes who were for a long time in slavery, and since their freedom the prejudice has become still greater. It seems almost impossible to think that in a country which is most up-to-date in civilization, there should be a population so looked down upon. Yes, in India there are shudras, lower castes who are called untouchable. Yet there have been scientific reasons, from a hygienic point of view, for not touching them, and the attitude of the high caste towards them has never been that of hatred. The men and women of that pariah class in India are called by others mehter, which means master. Yes, the people in America have their reason for it. They think Negroes are too backward in evolution to associate with. But to me it seems that the coming race will be the race of Negroes; they are showing it from now. In whatever walk of life they find an opportunity, they come forward in competition. Not only in wrestling or boxing, but also on the stage the Negroes show their splendor, and the most surprising thing to me was that, conscious of all the prejudice against the Negro from all around, he does not allow his ego to be affected by it. In every position of outward humiliation he is put to, he stands upright with a marvelous spirit, which I only wished the man in the East had, who has become as a soil worn-out after a thousand harvests. The spirit in the East seemed to me deadened, being weighed down by autocratic influences, tramped upon by foreign powers, crucified by high moral and spiritual ideals, and long starved by poverty.
An ordinary man in America confuses an Indian with brown skin with the Negro. Even if he does not think that he is a Negro, still he is accustomed to look with contempt at a dark skin, in spite of the many most unclean, ignorant and illmannered specimens of white people who are to be found there on the spot. I did not find so much prejudice existing in America against a Japanese, of which so much has been said. Still in answer to the unchristian attitude of theirs, the government of Japan has all along threatened them with the Mosaic law, and is ready to return the same when the Americans visit Japan. Indians, when insulted abroad, can do nothing but bear it patiently. The color prejudice in some nations of Europe is even more, but it is often hidden under the garb of politeness and not so freely expressed as in America; the difference is between a grown-up person and a child in his expression of prejudice.
An American as a friend is very agreeable and desirable and most sociable. One feels affection, spontaneity in his feelings, although the business faculty is most pronounced in him, yet together with it he is most generous. The American readily responds to the idea of universal brotherhood. He is open to study any religion or philosophy, although it is a question if he would like to follow a certain religion long enough, because freedom, which is the goal, by many in America is taken as the way, and therefore, before starting the journey towards spiritual freedom, they want the way also to be a way of freedom, which is impossible. I have seen among Americans people of a thorough good nature and their life itself a religion, people of principle and gentleness. The broad outlook of the people in America gave me a great hope and a faith that it is this spirit which in time must bring the universal idea to the view of the world. It is most admirable for a great nation to bring forward the idea of world disarmament, when many other nations are fully absorbed in covetousness, and submerged in their own interests. This idea of disarmament brought out by President Harding, was responded to by the public there. This shows the bent of their mind. Besides, to friends or enemies, in their trouble, whenever the occasion has arisen, America has most generously come first to their rescue.
With all the modern spirit in America I found among the people love for knowledge, search for truth, and tendency to unity. I found them full of life, enthusiasm, and goodwill, which promises that this modern nation, although it is now in its childhood, will become a youth who will lead the world towards progress.