When you ask somebody a question that springs from the very depths of your being, and its urgency is such that you can stake your whole life on it, then the answer received becomes your own, it ceases to be someone else’s. Then the other is only a mirror for you, reflecting your own answer. If Ramakrishna said, “Yes, God is,” it was not really Ramakrishna’s answer; he only reflected Vivekananda’s inner being. And for this reason it became an authentic answer, as if he had heard his own echo, the voice of his own innermost being, echoed through Ramakrishna. For Vivekananda, Ramakrishna seemed to be nothing more than a mirror.
Vivekananda had put the same question to someone else before he went to Ramakrishna. It was to the grandfather of the great poet Rabindranath Tagore. He was called Maharshi Devendranath – a great seer – and he used to spend his nights in a boat on the river Ganges, and do his sadhana – spiritual practice – in seclusion. In the middle of the night, the dark night of the new moon, Vivekananda swam across the river and climbed into his barge, which shook from end to end. Vivekananda pushed open the door, which was loosely closed, and entered his cabin. It was dark and Devendranath was sitting with his eyes closed in contemplation. Vivekananda caught him by the collar of his coat and shook him. Devendranath was frightened to find that a young man, soaking wet, had suddenly entered his cabin in the dead of night. The whole boat was shaking. No sooner had he opened his eyes, than Vivekananda shot his question at him, “I am here to ask if there is God.”
Devendranath first asked him to relax, and then he felt hesitant about answering the young man’s question. You can imagine the plight of a man who in the dead of night suddenly encounters an unknown young man coming to his solitary retreat, by crossing the river and shooting a question at him – “Is there God?” – in such a way as if he is pointing a gun at him. So he said, “Just wait a little and relax. And first let me know who you are and what brings you here. What is the matter?”
Immediately Vivekananda loosened his grip on his collar, left the cabin and plunged back into the river. When the Maharshi shouted at him, “Listen, young man,” Vivekananda shouted back, “Your hesitation has said everything, and now I go.”
The hesitation had really said everything. Devendranath hesitated so much that he sidetracked the real question: whether God is or is not. Later he admitted that he was really nonplussed, because never before had he been confronted with this question in such an outlandish manner. In public meetings and in temples and mosques, people had asked him questions about God and religion, and he had explained to them what the Vedas, the Upanishads and the Gita said. So naturally he was taken aback by Vivekananda’s manner of asking. He confessed subsequently that he was really in a quandary, he could not think of anything when the young man shot the question at him. And he also said that when the young man had gone, “I knew for the first time, through my hesitation, that I had no answer.”