Sister Nivedita - Swami Vivekananda's Gift to India

Among the builders of modern India, Swami Vivekananda, the patriot saint and prophet, occupies one of the most important places. Towards the end of 19th century when Swamiji appeared on the horizon of modern India, it was dark with heavy clouds of dangerous anomalies like poverry, utter ignorance, superstitions and many more social evils. He stressed a lot on two of them which were eating into the very vitals of the country. Those were the miserable condition of the masses and the women. He summed up the national problem of India in two words - neglect of women and the people. Swamiji said, "In India there are two great evils - the trampling on the women and grinding of the poor through caste restrictions." So emancipation of women and uplift of the masses formed the most important items of Swami Vivekananda's programme of national regeneration.

During his, parivrajaka days when he wandered from one end of the country to the other, he saw with his own eyes the miserable conditions of women and people of his country. The ignorant women of India, having no freedom and full of superstition presented a deplorable picture. India, which was once the land of great women, was in a very pitiable and tragic condition. The common people who were once descendants of sages of the Vedic age were leading lives of great misery 'like worms crawling in utter darkness'.

So in his plan for the rejuvenation of the country he gave the foremost place to the spread of education among women and the people. Swamiji believed that this change could best be brought about by educated women. But where were they? There were some like Smt. Sarala Ghoshal of Tagore's family and others. He even wrote a letter to Smt. Sarala Ghoshal, "If an Indian woman in Indian dress was to preachthe religion which fell from the lips of the rishis - I see a prophetic vision - there will rise a great wave which will inundate the whole western world. Will there be no woman in this land of Maitreyi, Khana, Leelavati, Savitri and Ubhayabharati who will venture to do this?" This fervent appeal of Swamiji went in vain due to the rigid traditions and customs of the society. The educated women also would not dare to come forward and take up this noble task.


But the response came from an unexpected quarter-England, the then ruling country of India. After his triumphant lectures at the Parliament of Religions at Chicago, Swamiji had come to London in 1895 to preach Vedanta. He met Miss Margaret Noble for the first time at Lady Isabel Margesson's house, where he had been invited to speak about Vedanta philosophy.

Miss Margaret Elizabeth Nobie, born in lreland, brought up and educated in England, inherited both religious fervour and love for her country from her parents and grandparents, who were not only religious preachers, but also had actively participated in the freedom movement of their country. By profession she was a teacher and an ardent supporter of the new educational movement founded by Pestalozzi and Froebel. Gradually, Margaret grew into a mature educator and became acquainted with some of the most learned and literary groups of London. Later, they founded a club called Sesame Club where such literary luminaries as Bernard Shaw, Thomas Huxley and others were regular speakers. In this way Margaret blossomed into a great scholar, powerful writer and speaker.

On a winters day of 1895, addressing a gathering of fifteen or sixteen people, Swamiji talked about God and the three paths of spiritual progress - Karma, Jnana and Bhakti. Although the lofty ideas of Swamiji were impressive to the listeners, the conservatism and insular pride of the British made them give the verdict that there was nothing new in his lecture. But Margaret could not dismiss in such an ungenerous way, all the new thoughts of his message, as she went about her tasks during the following days. She could not deny how deeply she was impressed by the truth presented by him. She attended two more of his lecfures before he left England for America. After four or five months, Swamiji again came to London where he lectured and gave classes which Margaret attended regularly. Swamiji's greatest intellectual achievements during these days were his lectures on ]nana Yoga, specially those on the theory of Maya. She attended regularly all these classes. Her sincere interest to understand this message of a new mind and a strange culture was so deep that she very often asked a number of questions only to make the subject clear to herself. The more she heard, the more impressed she became.

One day during the question class the Swami suddenly declared, "What rhe world wants today is twenty men and women who can dare to stand in the street yonder and say that they Possess nothing but God. Who will go?" By the time he had got up from his chair and come two steps forward, he again said, "Why should one fear? If this is true, what else could matter? If it is not true, what do our lives matter?", These words of Swamiji inspired Margaret tremendously. She wanted immediately to respond to his words, but due to her British descent she could control her emotions. She wrote a letter to Swamiji to know about his exact plan of work to which he replied in his letter on 7th June 1896, "My ideal can be put into a few words and that is to preach unto mankind their diviniry, and how to make it manifest in every movement of life... You have the making in you of a world mover. Bold words and bolder deeds are what we want. Awake, awake great one! The world is burning with misery, can you sleep? Let us call and call till the sleeping gods awake, till the God within answers to the call. What more is in life? What greater work?" Though in that letter there was no exact direction about the kind of work expected, she understood that he had taken her offer seriously. Later one day during the conversation, suddenly he turned towards her and said, "I have plans for the women of my own country in which you, I think, could be of great help to me." Immediateiy Margaret understood that this was the call for which she had been waiting all these years.

On Indian Soil

In December 1896 Swamiji departed for India. Margaret continued to help Swami Abhedananda who had taken up the London work to carry on the preaching of Vedanta; she also started a Vedanta centre in Wimbledon where she lived and gave a report of all the work done in London, from time to time, to 'Brahmavadin' the magazine pubiished by the devotees of Swamiii in Madras. Though she was busy with all these works, her main concern was about her coming to India and the taking up the work for Indian women. But in the beginning Swamiji did not mention anything about it because he was thinking deeply about how the tropical climate of India would suit her health and how she could adjust to the difficult conditions in India. Finally on 3rd July 1897 he wrote a letter in which he asked her to stay in England and work for India from there itself, instead of coming over. Margaret wrote back, explaining her keen interest and her terrible disappointment. Finally her persistence won the way. Swamiji changed his mind and wrote to her to come as she planned, "Let me tell you frankiy that I am now convinced that you have a great future in the work for India. What was wanted was not a man but a woman; a real lioness, to work for the Indians, women speciaily...India cannot yet produce great women. She must borrow them from other nations. Your education, sinceriry, purity, immense love, determination and above all the Celtic blood, make you just the woman wanted." But at the same time he pointed out in detail all the adverse situations that she would have to face. In the end of the same letter he wrote, "On my part, I promise you that I will stand by you unto death, whether you work for India or not, whether you give up Vedanta or remain in it."

Margaret immediately started for India. She landed at Calcutta on 28th January 1898. The Swami himself was at the docks to receive her. After a few days Swamiji's two American disciples, Mrs. Bull and Miss Macleod, also arrived. One day Swamiji took the American women to see the site of the new Math at Belur, which they liked very much. There was a house on the banks of the Ganges in which they desired to stay to which Swamiii agreed. After some small repairs both of them began to live there. Later Margaret also joined them. Swamiji used to join them every morning during their breakfast and narrate to them the culture and traditions of India in order to make them familiar with the land and the people of the country. Swamiii knew that Mrs.Bull and Miss Macleod would return to their country after their visit. But Margaret had come to live and serve this country. So he felt great responsibiliry towards her. She must know thoroughly the country, its people and its history. He had already made arrangements to teach her Bengali.

On llth March 1898, the inaugural meeting of the Ramakrishna Mission was held at the Star Theatre, which was presided over by Swamiji himself. Margaret was asked to speak at that meeting. She spoke about the spread of Indian spiritual thoughts in England. She stressed the greatness of Indian spirituality and concluded with, "So I have come to serve the people of this great country." The audience felt very happy and cheered her immensely. Swamiji was also very happy and later wrote in a letter to Swami Ramakrishnananda, "Miss Noble is really an acquisition."

Another important event of this month was her meeting with Holy Mother Sri Sarada Devi, the divine consort of Sri Ramakrishna, on 17th March 1898. Margaret noted in her diary that the day was 'a day of days'. Holy Mother welcomed the foreign ladies with great affection as 'my daughters'. Though they had no language in common, it mattered little, as they could understand each other's feelings. At the request of Miss Macleod, Holy Mother even ate with them, which surprised Swamiji also. For Holy Mother there were no barriers of caste or religion to express her motherhood. This gave a sanction to accept and absorb western devotees within the orthodox folds of the then Hindu society. Margaret wrote about this in a letter, "This gave us all a dignity and made my future work possible in a way nothing else could have done."

Training and Transfonnation

Another great and memorable day in the life of Margaret was 25th March 1898. It was the day on which she was initiated into brahmacharya by Swamiji who gave her a new name 'Nivedita'. Thus Margaret had a new birth. After the ceremony, Swamiji took Nivedita and the other two American disciples in a boat. During his talk on that day he expressed the great hope he placed on Nivedita and her devoted serviee to carry out his plan of work for Indian women. For this it was very essential that Nivedita should learn to look at the world through the eyes of the taught rather than impose her own ideas on them. With this intention he proposed to take them around the country and make - them understand India - These wanderings with her Guru were really important for the training of Margaret which finaily transformed her into 'Nivedita', the dedicated one. In her books, 'The Master as I Saw Him and 'Notes on Wanderings with Swami Vivekananda', Nivedita kept a faithful record of this tour. The journey was indeed a pilgrimage to Nivedita and in every page of her record one can breathe an air of sanctity and reverence. Specially at Almora, she had to undergo a severe test before she could fully and absolutely identifr herself with her adopted country. But with the blessings of her Guru and also with her sincere dedication, she could come out of this ordeal most successfully. Afterwards her identity with her adopted country was absolutely complete and total.

As the primary duty of Sister Nivedita was to spread education among the Indian women, she started a school for girls in Baghbazar in 1898. Holy Mother herself came and performed the inauguration of the school. Swamiji was also present. Mother blessed the school with her prayers, "May the blessings of the Divine Mother be on the school and may the girls who are trained here be ideal girls." Nivedita was overjoyed and remarked, "I cannot imagine a grander omen than her blessings, spoken over the educated Hindu womanhood of the future." Gradually, after a heroic struggle, her love and sympathetic understanding won the hearts not only of the children of the school but also the confidence of their parents. Nivedita herself used to teach the girls drawing, needlework and history. Their intrinsic artistic capacities made her very happy, specially their natural love to paint with colour and brush. Here I would like to share what we have heard from Revered Bharatiprana Mataji, the first President of Sri Sarada Math and a direct disciple of Holy Mother Sri Sarada Devi. She had the privilege of studying in the Nivediata school when Sister Nivedita used to take history classes for them. One day during the class, Sister Nivedita asked the students who their Queen was. One of the students instantly replied, "Queen Victoria is our Queen." Hearing this, Sister Nivedita felt very sorry, her face turned red. With great disappointment she corrected the girl saying, "Oh my daughter, how can you say that Queen Victoria is the Queen of India? No, never! The Queen of India is Sita, Savitri, Draupadi...." She told them also to repeat 'Bharat, Bharat" and started to count the beads around her neck, repeating the same with devotion. This incident is sufficient to show her deep love and devotion for Bharatvarsha which touched the hearts of the students.

On 20th June l899, Nivedita accompanied Swami Vivekananda and Swami Turiyauanda to the West in an attempt to improve Swamiji's health and collect funds for the School. This voyage with her Guru was highly beneficiai as Swamiii spoke on various subjects and Nivedita recorded them in her notes. These valuable notes of hers were the source of inspiration as well as the subject matter for her future books. She came back to India after nearly two-and-a-half years and this time she settled down at the house at 17 Bosepara Lane and opened the School on the auspicious day of Sri Saraswati Puja.

Observations on Indian Womanhood

Nivedita was successful through her inspiring lectures in removing the misconceptions about India, specially Indian women, and their cultural traditions, which were spread by the missionaries in outher countries. The proud, dignified and orthodox women of the neighbourhood charmed Nivedita. Her books reveal her first-hand knowledge about the inner life of Indian women and their greatness. After a deep study Nivedita could declare, "India is above all others a land of Great Women. Wherever we turn, whether to history or to literature, we are met on every hand by those figures whose strength she mothered and recognized while she keeps their memory eternally sacred."

Nivedita held their glorious ideals of self-sacrifice, dedication and one-pointed love and devotion as high ideals in life. Once she said, "When we come to the charge that Indian women are ignorant, we meet with a far deeper fallacy. They are ignorant in the modern sense - that is to say few can write and not many can read - are they then illiterate? If so, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, and all the Pauranic stories, which every mother and every grandmother tells her children are not literarure. But the European novels and the Strand magazine by the same token are? Can any one of us accept this paradox?"

In another lecture, she boldly asked the women audience who were sitting in front, "Have the Hindu women of the past become a source of shame to us, that we should hasten to discard their old-time grace and sweetness, their gentleness and piety, in favour of the first crude product of western information and social aggressiveness?" Nivedita had understood clearly the responsibility of "women in educating their chilren and also the importance of building up the national traditions emong them. According to her, "Women are the custodians of the culture and civilization of any country or nation. In all lands, holiness and saength are the treasures which the race places in the hands of woman to preserve, rather than in those of man... The greatness of the home lies in the tapasya of women." Nivedita had clearly understood that the education which the children received in schools and colleges was neither rational nor creative. It only induced them to imitate the western culture and civilization. Education along national lines should be nurtured at home, especially by the mothers. In Nivedita's opinion, the woman in whom education did not bring awareness of the national consciousness, the woman who had no notion of what her country stood for, was not a trulY and properly educated woman at all. In her scheme of education for Indian women was the idea of alignment with one's culrural ethos. She had great hopes about the future of Indian women and believed that in time, they would rise to their full stature and bring glory to their motherland. Regarding establishing India in its greatest glory she observed, "She shouid be surrounded by the mighry circle of her daughters first. It is they who must come forward to consecrate themselves before Her, touching Her feet, vowing to Her their own, their husband's and their children's lives. Then and then only she will stand crowned before the world." Nivedita said, 'The sanctuary today is full of shadows. But when the womanhood of India can perform the greatest Arati of nationality, the temples willbe all light, nay, the dawn really shall be near at hand."

Awakening the Spirit of Nationality

The next field of activiry in which Sister Nivedita has left her imprint is in her attempt to rouse national feelings among Indians. Actually she took her first lessons of Indian history and culture from her master, Swami Vivekananda himself. It was entirely through his inspiration that she learned to love the country and its culture and gradually India became her everything. It entered into her very soul. In her book, 'Footfalls of Indian History', she wrote about the glorious past of India and concluded, "India alone of all the nations of antiquiry is still young, still growing, still keeping a firm hold upon her past and still reverently striving to weeve her future." Later she wrote with great pain that Indian history is not yet written from a national perspective. Swamiji always emphasized man-making religion and man-making education. Nivedita changed Swamiji's 'man making' to 'nation making' which became the keynote of all her thinking, writing, and also speaking.

She explained in many of her writings how India was completely impoverished by the British rule, how all her indigenous institutions stood in decay - their arts and industries dead and dying. Nivedita was so taken up by the idea of building up national feelings among the people that she was ready to sacrifice everything for that ideal. It was because of this ideal that after the passing away of Swami Vivekananda she even gave up her membership of the Ramakrishna Order. This she did mainly so that the Math should not be endangered through her political activities- Her one and only goal of life was to serve the country which she loved from the very core of her heart.

Later, she went from one end of the country to the other, inspiring the people with her stirring lectures on nation and nationality. During this period, Lord Curzon was the Viceroy of the country. Many of his aggressive measures to check these national stirrings resulted only in intensifying it among the people. Already, the Indian National Congress was well accepted. Many other associations too had come up. Nivedita associated herself with all these organizations as her main concern was to rouse the country from the lethargy into which it was submerged. On 11th February, 1905, Lord Curzon, as the Chancellor of Calcutta University, declared in his convocation address that truth was more honoured in the West than in the East. At this remark the educated Indians who were present there felt higlrly insulted. But none dared to protest openly. Sister Nivedita on the very next day brought out extracts from Lord Curzon's book 'Problems of the Far East', where he himself had acknowledged that he had told many lies just to please the Korean President, in whose country he had gone as an Ambassador of England. This was published in the Amrita Bazar Patrika on 13th February and was reproduced by The Statesman the next day under the headline 'Lord Curzon in various capacities'. But Nivedita was not content with this. On 14th February she again published another letter addressed to the editor of The Statesman, under the title, 'The higher ideal of truth', at the end of which she admonished the audience, particularly the students who had received in 'a faultless silence' those charges levelled against their ancestors and their national codes.

When the Swadeshi movement broke out, Nivedita supported it whole heartedly, both in principle and in practice. She started using all the availabie Swadeshi goods. When the question rose about the future flag of India, Nivedita suggested the Vajra-the thunderbolt as the symbol, as it signified honour, sacrifice, purity, wisdom, and energy. She said, "The selfless man is tle thunderbolt. Let us try only for selflessness and we will become weapons in the hands of the gods." She was sympathetic with all the parties of the national movement-moderates as well as extremists.

Striving for an All-Round Revival

Whenever any natural calamity took place like floods, or famines, immediately Nivedita went there personally and helped the people of that part of the country. Her ill health, difficulties of travel, lack of transport-none of these could prevent her from going to that place and helping the people. During the floods in East Bengal, she rushed there to get first-hand information herself. She waded through knee-deep water all over the affected area and appealed to the people to come forward to serve them. She used to appeal and inspire them with love for the country aud people. She said, "Let us realize all that our country has done for us - how she has given us birth, food and friends, our beloved ones and our faith itself. Is she not indeed our Mother? Do we not long to see her once again as Mahabharata! The good of your country should be always your true aim of life." Her deep love for the country aad people inspired Rabindranath Tagore to call her 'Mother of the people'-'Lokamata'. He said, "When she uttered the words 'our people' the tone of absolute kinship which struck the ears was not heard from any other amongst us- 'We, while giving perhaps our time, our money, even our lives, have not been able to give them our heart."

Sister Nivedita paid equal importance to the revival of arts and Iiterature of the country. She knew that they are the best means to reach the people. She also believed that the rebirth of arts was essential for the remaking of the nation. She said, "Art must be reborn - not the miserabie travesty of the would be Europeanism that we at present know of." Actually Sister Nivedita had her first lessons about Indian art and its significance under Swamiji. During her travels with Swami Yivekanaada in norrhern India, she visited most of the important artistic buildings - the temples, museums, etc. Through his explanations she could understand the spiritual import of Indian art and architecture.

Sister Nivedita was not an artist by herself. But she was a great connoisseur of art. Her inspiration, encouragement and guidance helped many of the young Indian artists to portray ancient Indian art. At that time every one believed in the Greek influence on Indian art and gave all importance to it. It was Nivedita who opened the eyes of the artists to the real facts. She impressed even Mr. Havell, Head of the School of Art in Calcutta, to understand the Indian viewpoiat in art and architecture. He finally realized the truth of the ancient ideals of Indian art. Later Nivedita was also able to influence Abanindranath Tagore, the Vice Principal of the Arts School of Calcuna. This, in turn, influenced all his studenrs like the famous Nandalal Bose, Surendranath Ganguly and other budding artists. It was they who founded the Indian Sociery of Oriental Art. Sister Nivedita took deep interest in the artistic works of this younger group, encouraged them in various ways and thus she became a great source of inspiration to all of them.

Even in the fields of literature and science her contribution is highly noteworthy. She helped Sir J.C. Bose, one of the greatest scientists of India, in publishing his great scientific innovations. In the literary fields her own books were remarkable and they opened the eyes of the Indians to the rich legacy of Indian culture. She was an inspiration to poets. A Tamil poet Subrahmanya Bharati, who had met Sister Nivedita, wrote a beautiful poem expressing his admiration for her. In this way, she could awaken in the people of the country deep nationalistic feelings. This made Dr. Rashbehari Ghosh declare in the memorial meeting of Sister Nivedita, "If the dry bones are beginning to stir, it is because Sister Nivedita breathed the breath of life into them-if we are conscious of a budding national life at the present it is in no small measure due to the teachings of Sister Nivedita." Thus did Sister Nivedita prove herself to be one of the greatest gifts of Swami Vivekananda to India and fulfilled her Guru's words of blessings - 'Be thou to India's future son - the mistress, servant and friend in one'. She served her adopted country and its people till the last breath of her life. Even today a memorial stone at the sacred spot at Darjeeling where she was cremared proclaims, "Here reposes Sister Nivedita who gave her all to India."*