Sister Nivedita (1867 – 1811): A Sesquicentennial Tribute
Sister Nivedita, who though born far away from India in an Irish-Scottish family, had completely identified herself with India, loving and serving the country in ways few have done. Inspired by Swami Vivekananda at the age of 30, she decided to make India her home, and till the end of her short life of 44, lived and worked among Indian people. Her contributions were diverse, ranging from inspiring a sense of Indian Nationalism within Indians, to women’s education and empowerment, revival of Indian Art which then hardly had any self-awareness of its own artistic traditions, promotion of Indian Science, propagation of civic virtues and the citizen ideal’, as well as working as a hands-on humanitarian in epidemics and famines. The story of this woman, who became a devoted daughter of India, is one of the remarkable tales of courage and conviction in one’s calling, selflessness, and above all complete dedication.
Her Life before India
Nivedita was born Margaret Noble, in 1867 in Dungannon, County Tyrone in Northern Ireland. Both her father as well grandfather were Wesleyan priests while her maternal grandfather was a respected participant of the Irish national movement. Margaret’s early life was spent in considerable deprivation. At ten she lost her father and studied in a charitable institution at Halifax in North England. When seventeen, she began working as a teacher to take care of her mother and younger siblings. She taught in many different places in England as well as Wales, and by 25 started a school of her own in Wimbledon. She had made a name for herself as a respected experimental educationist, based on the ideas of Swiss educationist Johann Pestalozzi and his German disciple – the father of the Kindergarten concept – Fredrich Froebel, which were then just beginning to spread across the West. Her success in this field as well as writing abilities on themes of early childhood education and women’s issues brought her in touch with the intellectual crème de la crème of London largely through the membership of the Sesame Club founded by Lady Ripon. There she developed many new friendships and listened to stalwarts like Thomas Huxley and G.B. Shaw.
For someone who rose through her social ranks after long years of struggle and finally had everything going for oneself, advancing on the same trajectory for making lives of oneself and one’s immediate family more comfortable would have been the expected course. But Margaret’s life was to undergo a life-transforming event that was to change her entire future course. It was when she was invited through the social circle of the Sesame Club to a tea-talk at a select private gathering on a cold Sunday afternoon in November 1895 to hear a young 32 year old ‘Indian Yogi’ who had made considerable reputation in America in the preceding two years. Margaret had great devotion for Christ but many other Christian doctrines she was finding untenable with Science. In her pursuit for deeper meaning she had studied natural sciences, as well as Buddhism but deep within she pined for greater fulfillment for her inner being.
This man was Swami Vivekananda, impressed upon her mind some deep ideas like the essential purity and nobility of the humankind, and its oneness, lifting up Margaret’s mind. His thoughts were universal with human being at its centre, as also his assertion that the time had come for nations to exchange their ideals just as they exchanged commodities. ‘It had never before fallen to my lot to meet with a thinker who in one short hour had been able to express all that I had hitherto regarded as highest and best’, was how Nivedita felt about the first time she heard him. His message was based on what she regarded as the best and highest in human nature, and his words were also a call to action for serving suffering humanity – an invitation for sacrificing one’s life for the good of others. This was what, he said, the earth’s best and bravest were born for. She recounted later: “I had recognized the heroic fibre of the man and decided to make myself a servant of his love for his own people. But it was his character to which I had thus done obeisance. As a religious teacher, I saw that although he had a system to offer, nothing in that system would claim him for a moment, if he found that truth led elsewhere.” After listening to the Swami a few times that year and again the following year when the Swami returned from America Margaret became a dedicated volunteer for him. It was then he suggested that he had plans for the women of his country in which he thought she could be of help. That moment she knew she had found the calling of her life. She was signing up her whole life for a mission that had high degree of uncertainty in unfamiliar conditions.
Arrival in India and training under Swamiji
Margaret arrived in India in January 1898 and for next nine months got intensive training from the Swami who inspiringly opened the magical maze of India before her. On March 25th, Margaret received Diksha (Initiation) into a life of spirituality and service. Her life was offered to India by her Guru and was given the name ‘Nivedita’ – the ‘offered one’. They also undertook a journey for five months across northern and western parts of the country where ideas on religion, history, geography, ethnology, poured out of her Master’s lips in an inexhaustible stream, and the manifestly powerful feeling that he had for his country made way into the deepest chambers of Margaret’s heart. She later recounted:
There was one thing, however, deep in the Master’s nature which he himself never knew how to adjust. This was his love of his country and his resentment her suffering. Throughout the years in which I saw him almost daily, the thought of India was to him like the air he breathed. True, he was a worker at foundations. He neither used the word ‘nationality’, nor proclaimed an era of ‘nation-making’. Man-making, he said was his own task. But he was born a lover, and the queen of his adoration was his motherland. Like some delicately poised bell, thrilled and vibrated by every sound that falls upon it, was his heart to all that concerned her. Not a sob was heard within her shores that did not find in him a responsive echo. There was no cry of fear, no tremor of weakness, no shrinking from mortification, that he had known and understood. He was hard on her sins, unsparing of her want of worldly wisdom, but only because he felt these faults to be his own. And none to the contrary, was ever so possessed by the vision of her greatness.
In India she knew she had found her soul’s home and destiny.
Nivedita also noted that the Swami’s fascination was with all phases of India’s history and with all the diverse elements which were inter-woven in its tapestry:
In these talks of his, the heroism of the Rajput, the faith of the Sikh, the courage of the Mahratta, the devotion of the saints, and purity and steadfastness of noble women, all lived again. Nor would he permit that the Mohammedan be passed over. Humayoon, Sher Shah, Akbar, Shah Jehan, each of these and a hundred more found a day and a place in his bead-roll of glistening names.
After this initial phase of learning and exposure Nivedita settled to live and work in the Bengali neighbourhood of Baghbazar in North Calcutta, an area Europeans hardly ventured into. In November, she started a school at her place – 16 Bosepara Lane – for girls from orthodox families, where child marriage was widespread and girls hardly educated. She firmly believed that an ideal education for Indian girls should combine the traditional Indian values epitomized by the ‘family ideal’ along with developing of a world-view with history, geography, and science (which she considered as the 3Rs of Modern Education) forming the core of the ‘citizen ideal’. It was a wider identification with the community and nation at large, founded on deep empathy with the countrymen, that Nivedita envisaged for the Indian woman and youth of the future. “Efficiency to all the circumstances of life, this womanhood before wifehood, and humanity before womanhood, is something which the education of the girl must aim, in every age”, she wrote. On the foundation of the ‘family ideal’ and moving towards the larger ideal of ‘nationality’ is a constant refrain in Nivedita’s writings and she fervently wished the countrymen develop this ideal. “The centre of gravity must be for them, outside the family. We must demand from them sacrifices for India”, she wrote.
In June 1899 Nivedita travelled to America in the Swami’s company. She again got ample opportunity to hear Swami’s deepest thoughts on issues ranging on an astonishingly large canvass during the sea voyage. She was increasingly feeling that her Master’s teachings were so vast and sweeping that she needed a definite reference point in order to put them into action. It was during this time when Nivedita realised that what India needed most immediately for its overall regeneration was the self-awareness as one Nation and take control of her own destiny by freeing herself from the oppressive foreign rule.
Vivekananda passed away in 1902. Having lost the one, following whose footsteps she had come to live in a land not of her birth, she could have very well decided to go back. But she was made of sterner stuff and with steely resolve she stayed put, always being aware of the responsibility of carrying out her Master’s ideas and wishes in sphere of national awakening.
Her call to the Nation
Re-gathering herself, she began to give shape to the future direction of her work – translating her Master’s ideas of ‘Man-Making’ into ‘Nation-building’. All her efforts in diverse domains were to bring about a certain conception of ‘Nationality’ (that was the term she used) to India, in the hearts and minds of the people. What she meant by ‘Nationality’ was people feeling for the land as their ‘spiritual home’, and identifying with it in a way that it becomes an essential part of the individual’s self-concept, indeed an extension of one’s own self. This was a higher basis of ‘nationality’ that she thought could not come from mere political view of the Nation based on the citizen-state dynamic. That to Nivedita was the starting point for any national consciousness. She wrote in a letter to a friend:
The whole task now is to give the word ‘nationality’ to India, in all its breadth and meaning. The rest will do itself. It means a final understanding of the fact that the political process and the economic disaster are only side issues – that the one essential fact is realization of its own nationality by the Nation.
She wrote profusely towards the theme of Indian nationhood, knowing that to be her chief task. Nivedita held that no story of its analysed fragments, racial, lingual, or political, could ever be the story of India. She thoroughly believed that India was a synthesis with great strands of unity. She in fact thought that the British were quick to understand the underlying unity of the country and thus could put it under a common administration. She relentlessly attacked the idea that it were the British who had united India:
“If India had no unity herself, no unity could have been given to her. The unity which undoubtedly belonged to India was self-born and had its own destiny, its own functions and its own vast powers; it was gift of no one.”
From a teacher of a few girls she was set to become the sister, guide, and servant of the whole country. She plunged into a whirlwind of activities, contributing towards myriad aspects of national awakening and infusing a new energy and vision in all she came across. Nivedita’s Baghbazar quarters had become a rendezvous of sorts for eminent Indians of the time like Tagore, JC Bose, Gokhale, Aurobindo Ghosh and a large number of her young admirers who included revolutionaries as well as budding artists and intellectuals. Though she was not much in agreement of the mild petitionary methods of the Moderates, she had close friendship with national workers across the spectrum. To meet her, in Gokhale’s words, was ‘like coming in contact with some great force of nature’. The great Tamil nationalist poet Subramaniam Bharati, who had met Nivedita only once considered her as his Guru and ‘as one who taught him to love his country’. She also imprinted on his mind lofty ideals of conjugality and womanhood, which also made Bharati a champion of women’s empowerment in his later life.
In 1905, the major event of Partition of Bengal galvanized the national consciousness in an unprecedented manner. Through her writings and lectures she gave full support to the efforts of the Swadeshi campaign and urged people to go all out in this ‘Swadeshi-sadhana’. Her own work with girls and women gave full expression to the practice of ‘Swadeshi’.
Nivedita was one of the pioneering practitioners of the idea of worship of the nation as mother. Following the Partion of Bengal when the government prohibited the chanting of singing or chanting of ‘Bande Mataram’, Nivedita continued it as a part of her school’s daily routine. She passionately advocated the idea of worshipping the nation-mother. “Dedicate some part of every puja to this thought of the Mother who is Swadesh”, she said. She held Hindus and Muslims as children of the same Mother and in her writings and speeches exhorted them to together create the Indian nation of the future.
She was possibly the first person to have conceived and designed an Emblem and Flag for the country in 1905. And for that she chose the ‘Vajra’ (The Thunderbolt). The Vajra had a long history in Indian tradition symbolizing the ‘power of selflessness’, starting from the Puranic legend of Rishi Dadhichi who had sacrificed his bones to create a weapon for the gods – the invincible Vajra. The Vajra remained an important symbol in Buddhist traditions too. In Nivedita’s design there are two Vajras are crossed in order to signify coordinated and selfless actions of multiple individuals (of the nation) acting in effect as one national organism. Nivedita got some designs embroidered by the girls in her Calcutta school and had it displayed in the Exhibition organized by the Congress in 1906 in Calcutta. Some eminent Indians like J.C. Bose (who later made it the emblem of his Bose Institute in Calcutta) started using it, and this idea was also later reflected in the design of the Paramavira Chakra.
Art, Science, and Literature
Nivedita played an instrumental role in championing the cause of the Tata Institute (later the Indian Institute of Science) when the British Government under Curzon had scuttled the proposal given by Jamshedji Tata – which itself was an outcome of discussions between him and Vivekananda – of creating such an institution of higher research in sciences and humanities through his own philanthropic initiative. Outraged at this Nivedita wrote extensively in Indian as well as British press, meeting high officials and rallying the support of some of the world’s best minds like the eminent American psychologist and philosopher William James and the great Scottish polymath Patrick Geddes. Her more direct and intensive involvement for more than a decade was with the pioneering Indian experimental scientist JC Bose, for whom she not only organised a steady stream of funds for research, but also edited and helped in writing four of his important books that took his work to a broader world audience, at a time when he faced continuous discrimination at the hands of the British scientific establishment.
Nivedita always had a sharp critical mind on art developed right from her early days of schooling and she had made a deep study in museums across the Europe and visited several ancient sites of India like Sanchi, Bodh-Gaya, Ajanta-Ellora, Udaygiri-Khandagiri, Sarnath etc, making her well-steeped in knowledge of artistic traditions of both India and the Occident. She played a very crucial role in inspiring Indian artists to rediscover the roots of their own artistic traditions at a time when their artistic practice was largely informed by the traditions of the West. In this her efforts along with those of E.B. Havell (Principal of the Government Art School in Calcutta and Abanindranath Tagore led to the flourishing of what came to be known as the Bengal School of Art – which influenced a whole new generation of young painters like Nandalal Bose, Asit Haldar, and Suren Ganguly. Nivedita was at the forefront of attacking the then prevalent Western claim that it was Hellenic art that had inspired Indian art and that there were no proper Indian artistic traditions before that.
Nivedita was a prolific author and published more than half a dozen books in her short lifetime on themes of Indian history, Indian womanhood, education, nationhood, art, mythology, and her study of Vivekananda and published several booklets and scores of articles in Indian as well as British press. These writings now come in the five volumes, ‘Complete Works of Sister Nivedita’, and provide an insight into her brilliant mind.
A many faceted gem
As a humanitarian Nivedita manifested highest capacity of sacrifice for serving those in suffering. Putting her life at significant peril she served the distressed on many occasions like during the plague outbreak in Calcutta in 1899 and the great East Bengal famine of 1906. She suffered from a severe malarial attack after her work and stay in the famine-struck countryside of East Bengal, taking months to recover, with her health get impaired permanently. Rabindranath Tagore who had seen her from close quarters and had ‘felt her tremendous power’ later remarked:
He who had seen her has seen the essential form of a human being, the form of the spirit. She was a Loka-Mata. We had not seen before an embodiment of the spirit of motherhood which, passing beyond the limits of the family, can spread itself over the whole country. When she uttered the words ‘Our People,’ the tone of absolute kinship which struck the ear was not heard from any other among us.
Vivekananda had inspired many in his life, founded a monastic Order which is still serving the distressed and propagating the universal ideals he cherished. But among all his disciples – Indian and foreign – Nivedita’s life is unique. Firstly she charted her independent path and undertook many activities which the Ramakrishna Order founded by Vivekananda (and nurtured by his brother-disciples) could not have ventured into. With her vast intellectual and creative powers she understood Vivekananda’s social and futuristic thoughts more comprehensively than most others and could suggest means of translating them in various aspects of Indian life. Indeed she was the first one to see Vivekananda’s significance in world history and potential of his ideas for future and had the power and insight of interpreting the same to Indians as well as to the West. This is best reflected in her greatest work ‘The Master As I Saw Him’ and also in the ‘Introduction’ to the ‘Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda’ which itself is a powerful résumé of the Swami’s life-mission.
As a foreign-born lover of India she was also unique in the way that she had no trace of any airs of western superiority, and was probably the first Westerner to have made her life completely Indian and seeing things entirely from Indian perspective. Nivedita was an epitome of the ‘World Worker’, a term she herself used, not in the sense of a globe-trotting professional that we now see, but more in humble spirit of someone contributing in whatever little way in any part of the part of the world, knowing – to use Tagore’s expression – to light a lamp in any corner is to add to the illumination of the whole world.
Nivedita spent her whole life as an attestation, as it were, of the trust her Master had reposed in her. She had made herself completely one with the Indian people and identified with the whole of Indian past and dreamt and worked for a much brighter future. Indeed, a British journalist who knew her well had described her as ‘India-intoxicated’. On her beads she was known to repeat ‘Bharatvarsha’ as the mantra. The central theme of her life was to make the Indian people self-aware of their nationhood express it in various aspects of national life. Each Indian should live for the country’s sake and hold oneself as an offering to Mother India was her constant thrust. Like her Master who passed away at 39, Nivedita too exhausted herself and with a broken health passed away in Darjeeling on 13th Oct 1911, a fortnight before she could complete 44. At the place of her cremation in Darjeeling is an inscription saying, “Here reposes Sister Nivedita who gave her all to India”. Few would ever deserve the description more befittingly.