In November 1881, Narendra was invited to entertain some visitors in a house with his music, where Sri Ramakrishna was a guest. When the singing was over, Sri Ramakrishna grabbed him by the hand and took him to another room, saying ‘How late you have come! How unkind of you to have kept me for so long! My eares are almost seared from listening to the cheap talk of worldly people. Oh, how I have been yearning to unburden my mind to someone who will understand my thought!’ Narendra was quite taken aback by this display, but asked him ‘Have you seen God?’. Sri Ramakrishna’s reply: ‘Yes, I have seen God. I see him as I see you, only more clearly. God can be seen. One can talk to him. But who cares for God? People shed torrents of tears for their wives, children wealth and property, but who weeps for the vision of God?If one cries sincerely for God, one can surely see Him’. Narendra could see that these words came from the depths of experience; he returned home a little bewildered but with peace in his heart.
More unexpected events were to come in their two subsequent meetings: Sri Ramakrishna would touch Narendra and send him into a trance-like state, in which he felt the whole world disappear into an infinite void. The first time, Narendra cried out ‘What are you doing to me? I have my parents, brothers and sisters at home!’ ‘All right’, smiled Sri Ramakrishna, restoring him to normal consciousness ‘everything will happen in due time.’ Narendra felt a great inner pull towards this saintly man, and he visited him again, albeit determined not to let Sri Ramakrishna put him into any more trances. However it was to no avail; Narendra was so overwhelmed by the experience he lost consciousness. Sri Ramakrishna later said that many things he had suspected about Narendra were confirmed to him from this experience: that he was an Ishwarakoti, or one who has already attained perfection but comes to earth to help mankind, and also that he would give up his body the day he realised who he really was.
The relationship between Narendra and Sri Ramakrishna was of a kind made unique by the probing nature of Narendra’s intellect. Although he felt a great love for Sri Ramakrishna, he was openly sceptical of many of the things he talked about and semanded rational proof. Influenced by Western thought, he had come to believe neither in gods and goddesses or in the need for a Guru, a human intermediary between man and God. He believed firmly in a formless God, and he openly ridiculed Ramakrishna’s visions of gods and goddesses. These enquiries were always squarely met by Sri Ramakrishna talking in the light of his own experience; he never asked Narendranath to abandon his reason, in the knowledge that it would soon be replaced by direct perception. On one occasion when Sri Ramakrishna overheard Narendra making fun of the idea that God was in everything, he again touched him and went into Samadhi. For the next few days the world seemed as only a dream to Narendra, he could feel the presence of God in everything, and in himself too.
In particular, when Naren made fun of his worship of Mother Kali, Sri Ramakrishna would reply ‘All right; ere long you will not only accept my blessed Mother but weep in her name’.
Allied to this patience, Sri Ramakrishna displayed an unflinching love for Narendra ,borne out of is perception of his futire greatness. He once told Narendra ‘Mother says I love you because I see the Lord in you. The day I shall not see Him in you, I ont be able to even bear the sight of you’. Often Sri Ramakrishna would go into Samadhi as a result of Narendra’s mere presence. He would often sing Narendra’s praises in public, something which embarrassed Narendra. If studies or his home situation prevented Narendra from bcoming to Dakshineshwar to see Sri Ramakrishna, he would send someone to fetch him or go to see him himself. In later years Narendra would speak of the effect this love had on him – ‘What do worldly men know about love? They only make a show of it. The Master alone loves us genuinely.’
In return, Narendra’s single-mindedness for the Truth greatly pleased the Master. Once Sri Ramakrishna went without a whole month without speaking to Narendra; at the end of this time he remarked that anyone else would have left him long ago. Another time, Sri Ramakrishna offered to give him all his occult powers. ‘Let me realize God first’ replied Naren ‘and then I shall know whether I want supernatural powers’ .
However, there were dark times ahead for Narendra. In 1884 whilst he was preparing for his BA examination, his father Viswanath died. Unbeknownst to the family, Viswanath’s generosity meant the family were living beyond their means, and Narendra as the eldest male in the family had to find a way of dealing with the debts they now found themselves in, feed the entire family and finish law school. Often he went barefoot and hungry, skipping food so that his family might have more. These privations coincided with a time when he was increasingly influenced by the works of Western philosophers such as John Stuart Mill, David Hume, Herbert Spencer and Georg Hegel, and his intellectual attempt to see where these works fit in with his Hindu upbringing was causing him much frustration. He began to wonder if a loving God could exist in a society so filled with misery, and he would his friends about His non-existence. Reports came to Sri Ramakrishna speculating about the supposed degradation of Narendra’s character; but Sri Ramakrishna angrily put a stop to such speculation, refusing to believe it.
And it happened that one day this inner tension finally broke. He had been out all day looking for work and had had no food all day. Exhausted, he sat down on a roadside porch. Suddenly he had a strange vision, which was to last all night: he felt that the veils of ignorance covering his soul were removed one by one, and that at last he had come to understand how a compassionate God could exist in a world of suffering. Then and there, he became determined to renounce all for the sake of God. He decided to live life as a wandering monk, but knowing that Sri Ramakrishna was coming to Calcutta, decided to see him one last time. However, Sri Ramakrishna already knew of Narendra’s intent without Narendra telling him, saying ‘I know you are bornfor Mother’s work. I also know that you will be a monk. But stay in the world as long as I live, for my sake at least’. Narendra was moved to stay, and indeed soon after he found himself temporary work which provided a minimal income for his family.
One day Narendra asked Sri Ramakrishna why he did not pray to Mother Kali to relieve his poverty. Sri Ramakrishna asked in reply why he did not pray himself, assign that Naren suffered because of his refusal to acknowledge Kali. That evening, Naren went to the Kali temple and experienced that the image of Kali there was nothing other than the Divine Mother Herself, ready to grant anything he desired. Absorbed in meditation, Naren forgot completely about his life of poverty and prayed for more wisdom and discrimination. Returning to the Master’s room in great peace, Naren was asked if he had prayed to be relieved of his penury. He replied he had not, and Sri Ramakrishna asked him to go back to the temple to pray for money, but again he forgot. This happened a third time also. This incident left a great impression on Naren. He realised how Kali represented the active energy, or shakti, of God manifesting in the universe, controlling its joys and sorrows, pain and pleasure, life and death. From then on, he was an ardent devotee of Kali.