This essay attempts to capture the multifarious ways in which Swami Vivekananda’s ideas of ‘Man-Making’ were translated into ‘Nation-Building’ by Sister Nivedita. 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 having a country /nation to identify with, which identification becomes an essential part of the individual’s self-concept. That to Nivedita was the starting point for any national consciousness.
Initial Training : The Master and the Mother
After arriving in India in January 1898 she began to get extensive training from her Master and the magical maze of India captivated Nivedita. She also got initiated into a life of spirituality and service and the ideal set before her by Master was that of the Boddhisattva – giving up one’s life fully to ameliorate the hardships of others without thinking of one’s own salvation. He also charged her to completely refashion her life in the mould of a Hindu Brahmacharini, even destroying the memories of her past. Towards achieving this stupendously difficult task she was benefitted most by her close association with the Holy Mother, with whom she also stayed for nearly a fortnight, being witness to the daily austerities and orthodox spiritual life of all the denizens of Mother’s household. This was an education in sacraments, something which, in her own words, changed ‘her centre of gravity’, which Nivedita later deemed to be of incalculable value in her development.
Now that her perspective had already got sufficiently recalibrated, Vivekananda found her ready for an advanced round of training, as it were. In June 1899 Nivedita travelled to America in the Swami’s company. She again got ample opportunity to hear the Swami’s deepest thoughts on issues ranging on an astonishingly large canvass during the sea voyage. She later wrote:
‘To this voyage of six weeks I look back as the greatest occasion of my life….I received one long continuous impression of his mind and personality, for which I can never be sufficiently thankful. … From the beginning of the voyage to the end, the flow of thought and story went on. One never knew what moment would see the flash of intuition, and hear the ringing utterance of some fresh truth.’
Introspection in the West (1899-1901)
Upon reaching America, Nivedita followed her independent lecture tour while the Swami did his own work. Along with a few other friends and admirers of the Swami, they were briefly together in Paris and also attended the Paris Exposition. It was in Brittany in France just before Swami was on his way back to India that he gave a unique blessing to Nivedita saying, “‘Go forth into the world and there, if I made you, be destroyed! If Mother made you, live!” He gave complete independence to Nivedita to carve out her own direction of work and also presented to her with benediction written in verse.
While Swamiji had returned to India, Nivedita stayed in England for another year, engaging with many new ideas that were to inform her later nationalist work in India. This was a period of considerable intellectual enrichment for her. She was particularly influenced during this time by Scottish polymath Patrick Geddes, with whom she worked for a few weeks in Paris. She also made close friendship with eminent social theorist Peter Kropotkin – whom she hailed as ‘King of Modern day Sociologists’. She also spent some weeks in the company of the veteran civil servant and one of the first Indian economists, Romesh Chandra Dutt when both were guests of Mrs Ole Bull in Norway. He motivated Nivedita to write her first major work as an interpreter of India to the West – ‘Web of Indian Life’.
This entire period of travel and stay in the West for two years was a crucial time in Nivedita’s later development. It was during this time that she realised that what India needed most immediately for its overall regeneration was freedom from the oppressive foreign rule. She also realised that her Master’s teachings were so vast and so sweeping that as his devoted disciple and worker she needed a definite reference point in order to put them into action. For Nivedita the cause of Nation-building was to be the line of her work. She strongly began to feel that she had something definite to contribute in this sphere. “Just as Sri Ramakrishna, in fact, without knowing any books, had been a living epitome of the Vedanta so was Vivekananda of national life. But of the theory of this, he was unconscious”, wrote Nivedita. It was the self-aware articulation of this ‘national life’, in all its breadth, that Nivedita decided to make the main thrust of her mission for rest of her life.
Man-Making to Nation-Building
Nivedita returned from the West in February 1902 – in her own words ‘to be present at the closing scene, to receive the last benediction’. Her diary on 4th of July 1902 had just two words ‘Swami died’. The one, banking on whom, she had left her home, family, future, and her country to live in a culture vastly different from hers, was no more. A lesser person might have considered return to one’s familiar backyard. Only a person made of immense grit could have continued to live under such changed circumstances. But she was made of sterner stuff and with steely resolve she stayed put. 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’.
Throughout the years following 1902, Nivedita was formulating the different bases for Indian nationhood and eloquently expressing them in her writings. She knew this to be her chief task. In 1903 she wrote in a letter to Miss MacLeod:
‘The whole task now is to give the word ‘nationality’ to India, in all its breadth and meaning. The rest will do itself. India must be obsessed with this great conception. Hindu and Mohammedan must become one in it, with a passionate admiration of each other. It means new views of history, of customs, and it means the assimilation of the whole Ramakrishna-Vivekananda idea in religion, the synthesis of all religious ideas. 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 realisation of its own nationality by the Nation.’
She thoroughly believed that India was a synthesis with great strands of unity. “The Indian people may be defective in the methods of mechanical organization but they have been lacking as a people, in none of the essentials of organic synthesis.” 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.
‘The Motherland is indeed one, that north and south are inextricably knit together, and that no story of its analysed fragments, racial, lingual, or political, could ever be the story of India…The Indian people may be defective in the methods of mechanical organization, but they have been lacking, as a people, in none of the essentials of organic synthesis. No Indian province has lived unto itself, pursuing its own development, following its own path, going its way unchallenged and alone. On the contrary, the same tides have swept the land from end to end.’
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.’
Nivedita could see that that Indians themselves were not self-aware of this unity and this is what she applied herself to. She knew when this self-awareness of a nation came India would march ahead in its destined path with greater vigour and strength. Few understood as she as to how much it cost Indians not knowing what India really meant – this lack of realisation by the nation of its own nationality. In a letter she wrote to her sister May in 1905 she writes, ‘But we shall be on firmer ground when we have a clear thought to associate with the word India.’
Education for Nation-Building
For Nivedita what India needed was an education established soundly on the basis of a ‘national consciousness’. To her any effective education had to boost the national self-consciousness, and invoke vigour and responsibility, and that once this was firmly in place, international / universal dimensions would follow, thus raising it to a new level of perfection.
Nivedita believed that training of the mind and development of power of concentration had been the chief thrust of Hindu education for ages. And therefore, it did not have anything substantial to learn from West towards this. She felt that superiority of the West lay in her realisation of the value of united efforts in any given direction. She referred to this Western trait as ‘organizing of the popular mind.’ It was here she felt India could learn from the West.
According to Nivedita, National Education is first and foremost an education in national idealism with emancipation of sympathy and intellect as its chief aim. For achieving this she wanted the ideals presented before the children and students to be in a form informed by their own past. “Our own imagination must be first based on our own heroic literature. Our hope must be woven out of our own history. From the known to the unknown must be the motto of every teacher, rule of every lesson.” A true national education in India would awaken people towards a life of sacrifice towards what she referred to as ‘jana-desha-dharma’.
An education founded on a national basis was to Nivedita the perfect recipe for creating future heroes. She did not think heroes were born; she believed all human beings had an innate longing for self-sacrifice, and that the force of heroic thought impels them in that direction. She thought that the challenge of educating the Indian masses could be best solved by dedicated and inspired educational missionaries coming from within the country. It was her fervent desire to see a band of educational missionaries who would across length and breadth of the country educating the masses. She took the example of many Western countries where young men were required to serve for a few years in the military service and hoped for a similar army of educational missionaries in India. But she believed that best way to do this was by voluntary selflessness of students and youths themselves.
From ‘Family Ideal’ to ‘National Ideal’
On the foundation of ‘family ideal’, moving towards the larger ideal of ‘nationality’ is a constant refrain in Nivedita’s writings, and she wished that the countrymen, particularly the youth, have a deeper cultivation of this ideal. ‘The centre of gravity must be for them, outside the family. We must demand from them sacrifices for India, Bhakti for India, learning for India.’
She hoped children from a very young age absorb this spirit of identifying with the nation as a whole.
‘The best preparation for nation-making that a child can receive is to see his elders always eager to consider the general good, rather their own.…We are a nation, where every man is an organ of the whole, when every part of the whole is precious to us, when the family weighs nothing in comparison with the People.’
She was at her inspired best giving a call, just like her Master, to her countrymen for pledging their lives for sacrifice for the sake of the nation.
‘Why should we limit the social motive to a man’s own family, or to his community? Why not alter the focus, till we all stand, aiming each at the good of all-others, and willing, if need be, to sacrifice himself, his family, and even his particular social group, for the good of the whole? The will of the hero is ever an impulse to self-sacrifice…. Shall I leave my family to struggle with poverty, unprovided? Away with the little vision! Shall we not eagerly die, both I and they, to show to the world what the Indian idea of duty may be? May not a single household be glad to starve, in order that a nation’s face may shine? The hero’s choice is made in a flash. To him, the larger vision is closer than the near.’
And thus she urged and inspired the countrymen to immerse this little ‘self’ into the Virat of Bharatvarsha:
‘If the whole of India could agree to give, say, ten minutes every evening, at the oncoming of darkness to thinking a single thought, “We are one. Nothing can prevail against us to make us think we are divided. For we are one. We are one and all antagonisms amongst us are illusions” – the power that would be generated can hardly be measured.’
She knew that in the modern times a strong Indian nation needs to have a thoroughly democratized society with careers open to ability for all and that for achieving this education was the key. Her thoughts on equal opportunities and access to education were spelt unambiguously:
‘The motherland must recognize no caste, for that would prevent her availing herself of the best possible service. For this, the presence of a social formation representing democracy is absolutely necessary. So far from recognizing caste, indeed education must be absolutely democratized, in order that all talents may be discovered, and the remaking of the Swadesh may proceed apace.’
On his return to India in 1897, in Madras Swami Vivekananda had said : ‘For the next fifty years this alone shall be our keynote – this, our great Mother India. Let all other vain gods disappear for the time from our minds. This is the only god that is awake, our own race – everywhere his hands, everywhere his feet, everywhere his ears, he covers everything.’ Echoing that Nivedita said:
‘This desire to serve, the longing to better conditions, to advance our fellows, to lift the whole, is the real religion of the present day. Everything else is doctrine, opinion, theory. Here is the fire of faith and action. Each day should begin with some conscious act of reference to it. A moment of silence, a hymn, a prayer, a salutation.’
She hoped minds and hearts will be trained to the service of the jana-desha-dharma, and that will act as the motive-spring of all the struggles. She thought of ‘organised unselfishness’ as the foundation of national feeling.
Inspiring Youth and Intellectuals in National Movement
An important area of her work during these years was to inspire the youth in the ‘religion of nation-building’. She embarked on extensive lecture tours in different legs covering Bombay, Poona, Nagpur, Amraoti, Baroda, Madras, Patna, Lucknow and several other places. When in Calcutta she used to visit and lecture in various youth and civil groups like the Dawn Society founded by Satischandra Mukherjee, Vivekananda Societies, Anushilan Samity etc. After the appointment of the Universities Commission (1902) by Lord Curzon (leading to the Universities Act in 1904) several leading men in Bengal’s public life embarked upon the course of a ‘National Education’. The chief vehicle of this was, the Dawn Society, which was a meeting and moulding place for young intellectuals. Nivedita was a frequent visitor here and passionately addressed the youth. She engaged in discussions on what ingredients should an ideal National Education have and published extensively on the same – now compiled in her book, ‘Hints on National Education in India’. These efforts and ideas led to the founding of the National College in Calcutta with Aurobindo Ghosh as its Principal. Aurobindo had been in touch with Nivedita ever since their first meeting in Baroda in 1902 when she had urged him to locate to Calcutta. Nivedita was also very active among the small scattered revolutionary societies and was a member of the committee which Aurobindo Ghosh organised for coordinating and integrating the efforts of all these groups. She inspired a large number of youth who became prominent in revolutionary activities. Wherever she went the youth cheered her. She was a heroic figure to them. She then arranged for Bhupendranath’s higher education in America after the latter was released after one year of imprisonment.
She also inspired many young intellectuals to devote their future for serving the country and gave them concrete guidance. Prominent among them were Benoy Sarkar, later an eminent social scientist, and eminent historian Radhakumud Mukherjee to whom she gave the vision of working in the field of Indian history which he did splendidly. The long note that she wrote to the then young Mukherjee is an intellectual treat and now a part of Complete Works of Sister Nivedita. His future work, particularly his work, ‘The Fundamental Unity of India’, bore the mark of the seeds which Nivedita sowed in his young mind. She was definitely a sort of public intellectual of that time.
Many important figures of the National Movement were close to Nivedita. Nivedita had a greater proclivity for the stand of who were called the ‘Extremists’ in the National Congress – represented by Tilak, Lajpat Rai, and B.C. Pal. But she had a close friendship with Gokhale who used to stay in Calcutta for long periods due to his membership in the Imperial Council and was a regular visitor to Nivedita’s house. Nivedita, often with her characteristic candidness, expressed dissatisfaction towards the concessionary politics practiced by Gokhale, but praised him generously whenever he made an impact in the Council. For the furtherance of the national cause she presented him with several letters of introduction during his visits to Britain with leading opinion-makers there.
In 1905, the major event of Partition of Bengal galvanized the national consciousness in an unprecedented manner. She played a very active role in the Nationalist movement following the Partition. 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’. Her writings at that time bear the testimony of how she passionately advocated not just Swadeshi but its logical accompaniment of boycott of foreign goods.
It was during that time that she also felt the need for an Emblem for the whole country. And for that she chose the ‘Vajra’ (The Thunderbolt). The Vajra had a long history in Indian tradition symbolizing the ‘power of selflessness’. The idea first occurred to Nivedita during a trip to Bodh-Gaya when she found that the ‘Vajra’ was a common Buddhist symbol – used in worship and other rituals. In Tibet and Myanmar the Vajra stood for the Buddha himself. The Lamas did their Puja holding a miniature ‘Vajra’ in their hand.
In Nivedita’s design there are two Vajras 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. Quite a few eminent persons of the time started using this as an emblem. It later came to be used as the Emblem of the Bose Institute founded by Jagadish Chandra Bose. The Paramvir Chakra also has the double-vraja as a major component of its emblem. It is quite possible that it was Nivedita’s inspired idea that was at its root too.
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 prayer. She passionately communicated the idea of worshipping the nation-mother. “Dedicate some part of every puja to this thought of the Mother who is Swadesh. Lay a few flowers before Her, pour out a little water in Her name”, she said.
From August 1907 to July 1909, Nivedita along with the Bose couple, went westward. She continued with her journalistic activity, both in Indian as well as British press, and helped create a favourable opinion on Indian questions among sympathetic Englishmen.
Steeped in the process of reaching Advaita through rejecting dualities, she urged everyone to imagine India is one – imagining thus she would actually become one. To her India was the great unity all Indian people had to arrive at. In today’s times when people question whether India is or can ever be called a ‘nation’ and point out what they think is its ‘fragmentary nature’, Nivedita’s exhortation to her Indian brethren has an abiding value :
‘Let love for the country and countrymen, for the People and Soil, be the mould into which our lives flow hot. If we reach this, every thought we think, every word of knowledge gained, will aid in making clearer and clearer the picture. With faith in the Mother, and Bhakti for India, the true interpretation of facts will come to us unsought. We shall see the country as united, where we were told that she was fragmentary. Thinking her united she will actually be so. The universe is the creation of the mind, not matter. And can any force in the world resist a single thought, held with intensity by three hundred millions of people?’
The Motherland – Her Central Note
In the concluding paragraph of her masterly Introduction to the ‘Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda’ Nivedita wrote :
‘These, then – the Shâstras, the Guru, and the Motherland — are the three notes that mingle themselves to form the music of the works of Vivekananda. These are the treasure which it is his to offer. These furnish him with the ingredients whereof he compounds the world’s heal-all of his spiritual bounty. These are the three lights burning within that single lamp which India by his hand lighted and set up, for the guidance of her own children and of the world.’
It can be said that it was to this third note of her Master – the Motherland, that Nivedita applied herself most. 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. That each Indian should live for the country’s sake and hold oneself as an offering to Mother India was her constant thrust.
Swami Vivekananda, when he was with Nivedita in France in 1900, had blessed Nivedita’s future work by presenting a poem which was also a charge to her of her future mission in form of the lines :
Be thou to India’s future son
The mistress, servant, friend in one.
Nivedita spent her whole life as an attestation, as it were, of this faith her Master had reposed in her. She carefully nurtured this trust and hoped that she does justice to what he might have expected of her. As far as Swami Vivekananda’s love and vision for India is concerned, it can truly be said that it was Nivedita who was his heiress in this line of thought and action.
- The Complete Works of Sister Nivedita, 5 vols (Calcutta: Advaita Ashrama, 1996)
- Pravrajika Atmaprana, Sister Nivedita (Calcutta: Sister Nivedita Girls’ School, 1977)
- The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda, 9 vols (Calcutta: Advaita Ashrama, 1997)
- Letters of Sister Nivedita, 2 vols (Calcutta: Advaita Ashrama, 2017)