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Master visionary

Narendra Nath Dutta's meeting with Sri Ramakrishna and his transformation into Swami Vivekananda are now part of legend, but less known perhaps is the influence of Reverend William Hastie on him, says JAIBOY JOSEPH.


Reverend William Hastie

BUT for a chance remark during a Wordsworth lesson, there would not have been a Vivekananda. It was the late K. Swaminathan, the eminent professor of English and a Gandhian, who drew my attention to the perhaps well-known story about which I must confess I was ignorant earlier.

It was in a letter about my review of his book on Ramana Maharishi that Prof. Swaminathan explained the significance of this intriguing cross-cultural event. He wrote that it was Reverend Hastie, "a Scot in a Calcutta College" who told "a sceptical Narendra" during a lesson on Wordsworth's "Excursion": "Go to Dakshineswar and there you will see someone in a state of ecstasy, the kind the poet describes."

Prof. Swaminathan added: "Narendra went, saw, and was conquered and became Vivekananda. I call this college lecture more momentous (and far less costly event) than your Battle of Plassey."

The allusion conveyed the earthshaking nature of the event remembering as I did that during the Raj days we were taught that it was the crucial victory at Plassey that finally paved the way for British rule in India.

That there was more a providential design than accident leading to the event is apparent from a reading of what happened. One day the English professor was absent and Reverend William Hastie, the college Principal, known for his great erudition, himself came to teach instead. Hastie in his lecture suggested that the state of trance or spiritual ecstasy experienced by Wordsworth when looking at Nature was indeed real. He added that he had come across one person who had attained to such a state and that was Ramakrishna Paramahamsa of Dakshineswar. He urged the students to go and observe the phenomenon for themselves. The recommendation so excited the interest of Narendra Nath Dutta, the brighter among students, that he took it up seriously.

Narendra was an atheist but he was also one who kept the doors of enquiry always open. He had read about Sri Ramakrishna in Brahmo Samaj journals, but it was the remark by Hastie whose intellectual abilities he respected that made him take the step.

His meeting with Sri Ramakrishna and his transformation into Vivekananda, the "world teacher" are now part of legend, but less known perhaps is the greatness of Hastie and what he stood for.

William Hastie taught in the Scottish Church College known for its rich heritage in Calcutta. The college was earlier known as the General Assembly's Institution of which Hastie was Principal from 1878 to 1884. The institution was founded in 1830 by Dr. Alexander Duff, the first overseas missionary of the Church of Scotland in India. Incidentally, Dr. Duff along with Raja Rammohan Roy played a great role in the introduction of English education in the country. To this day the Scottish Church College in Calcutta is known for the achievements of its teachers, not to say students. The fascinating galaxy of its alumni includes not only the name of Swami Vivekananda but that of Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose.

Hastie was famous for his rapport with students. Till the end of his stay in India he was aware, for example, of the mental changes in Narendra of whom he said: "Narendra Nath Dutta is really a genius. I have travelled far and wide, but have never yet to come across a lad of his talent and possibilities, even in the German universities amongst philosophy students."

By the same token, Baikuntha Sanyal in his work on Vivekananda states that Hastie was so fond of Dutta that he made allowances for some of his faults as well, one being Dutta's habit of chain smoking.

Swami Saradananda who was Vivekananda's friend has recorded that Hastie led a pious life with overflowing love for his students.

Sister Nivedita has also written: "He (Swamiji) told us with much pride of his only contact with missionary influence in the person of his Scottish master, Mr. Hastie." Vivekananda also confided to Sister Nivedita of Hastie being "a stubborn idealist". Rev. Hastie appeared to be getting always involved in numerous controversies that met with the Church of Scotland's disapproval. For example his campaign against "blind faith" and "religious bigotry" got him into trouble. He also took on Bankim Chatterjee in a debate on rituals, which caused sparks to fly.

William Hastie was born in Scotland in July 1842. In Edinburgh University he distinguished himself in Mathematics and Physics, but the subject which most attracted him was Philosophy. In 1864, Hastie took the first prize in an essay competition on the "Unity of the Human Race viewed in relation to Man's Physical and Moral nature". He finished his M.A. in Philosophy in the First Division after which he took a degree in Divinity. He pursued the study of philosophy still further in Germany and Holland. He was not keen on priesthood, though in 1875 he obtained a probationer licence in the Church of Scotland to teach abroad. In 1878 he left Liverpool for Calcutta where he joined the General Assembly's Institution to which he brought in a new vision and discipline. He restructured the Philosophy Department which Narendra Nath Dutta, attracted by Hastie's scholastic reputation, joined as a student. Hastie was all the while a prolific writer. Apart from his original works he did translations of important books from French, German and Greek.

His outspokenness and short temper cost him dearly on many occasions in the long haul. There was, for example, the row over the Jenana Mission School and Orphanage run by the Scottish Ladies Association headed by one Miss Pigott who had many friends in high places including the Church in Edinburgh. When Hastie brought her misdoings up to the highest authority he was misunderstood and dragged to court. A defamation case was brought up by Miss Piggot and he was put in the Presidency Jail for a month in 1885 but finally allowed to leave after he had paid 300 pounds which he had with great difficulty saved for his mother. There were protest meetings held by Indians and foreigners in Calcutta at this unjust treatment.

He returned to his native Scotland where he was forgiven by the Church and given an important post in Glasgow University. He died suddenly in August 1903 at the age of 61. When the news reached India there was great mourning as his admirers from all communities were many. Among the poetical works of Ram Sharma there are moving lines paying tribute to the memory of Hastie whom he numbers among the "master spirits of this age."

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