Sister Nivedita’s Life and Works: A Study in Context

This article is part 1 of 2 in the series Sister Nivedita

Countless patriots endeavoured in numerous ways to magnify the resplendence of Indian history in the past two centuries. Among them are individuals who strove to achieve independence by means of gentle persuasion and direct antagonization of the Imperial establishment, people who ceaselessly popularized India’s uniqueness and the singularity of her multi-dimensional achievements, persons who worked with a single-minded zeal to uproot every distortion afoot in the Indian soil caused by alien narratives, and people who projected India’s lofty image on the global screen. The saga of Indian independence is essentially a collection of life-sketches of these luminaries. Were Indians not to achieve unparalleled excellence in diverse walks of life over the centuries, foreigners would perhaps never invade our country. But our people attained distinction in every worthy aspect of life — from philosophical enquiry to social reform, from examining metaphysical tenets to enumerating scientific ideas, from exploring every nook and corner of the emotional universe to harnessing economic schemes profitably, from agricultural innovation to foreign trade. Ants gather around a sweet dish; this is the law of Nature. Indians achieved serene happiness by the sheer force of their competence, fighting natural challenges and repelling invasive forces. A frequently rehashed naïve opinion attributes India’s subjugation to her contemplative nature.            

Transformation

The midportion of the nineteenth century is one of the most brilliant epochs of recent history. The first war of Indian independence that transpired during this period is rightly considered historic. A chain of inspiring events set in motion an aggressive transformation, upon which it is worthy to contemplate. Foreign rule had by then sucked the vitality of our people, both internally and externally. Voices of fierce opposition were rare. Alongside this stood a host of other factors. Prominent among them were modernization and technological upsurge that the foreign rule represented. The allure of these modern notions had created a sort of neutral attitude in understanding the exact nature and repercussions of the said development. People in the ‘higher echelons’ of society embraced modernity because western education and technological progress ensured affluent living. Their stand was but natural; it was also hollow and immature. People who spoke of the ill-consequences of these epochal trends, drawing attention to the civilizational corrosion that is likely to follow, were immediately branded anti-progressive.

Amidst this pandemonium a few people exercised their intellects sagaciously. They thought on the following lines: Ours is an ancient country; it was once the most prosperous and learned among all nations. How did it fall into the trap set out by a handful of foreigners?

It was impossible to impress upon common people the value of independence without subjecting their mind-set to immediate, positive transformation.

Efforts were being made to reinvigorate Indian society as early as the beginning of the eighteenth century. The quantum of change was minimal, owing to the ubiquitous influence of British oppression. A few people imbued with indomitable courage and far-reaching vision made sporadic attempts to transform society. The situation demanded swimming against the tide. Britishers had a huge mass of military personnel at their disposal, and they systematically worked towards dismantling local social structures. Facing them head-on required extraordinary bravery. Although social awakening was tiresomely slow, efforts that heralded the eventual pan-Indian pro-freedom movement were taking shape. Sixty to seventy years elapsed in this state.

Around mid-nineteenth century, a significant change came over the mind-set of Indian citizens. A cardinal feature was the crystallization of the following idea: the aim of our society should be to achieve Swaraj and not merely good governance (accepting for the sake of argument that good governance would indeed ensue). The process of securing independence was to be multi-pronged, based on the realization that a mere shift in the scheme of governance does not equate to freedom from the foreign yoke. People began to understand that freedom, as an indivisible entity, entails not just availing political discounts, but revitalizing the cultural and philosophical grandeur that had lost its original sparkle because of foreign invasions. They were of the firm opinion that freedom should reflect in all dimensions of life — mainly culture — bringing in its wake an awakening of identity achieved through recalling the glory of our hallowed heritage. This required accepting Kṣātra (exalted valour) as an unerasable part of our civilization and rescuing it from the unlit corners of disrepute to which it had been relegated in recent times.

Sister Nivedita (28.10.1867–13.10.1911) eminently responded to these challenges of time. She came to India as Swami Vivekananda’s disciple, developed oneness with our cultural ethos, immersed herself in a variety of activities related to public life, and endeavoured to bolster social dynamism and further the cause of the Swadeshi movement.    

Explosion of Vigour

By the end of the nineteenth century, efforts were beginning to take shape in assimilating native ethos, responding to invasive foreign forces powerfully, and sharpening political discourse. There was a dire need for a large-scale social activation that could challenge the British establishment, drive away pusillanimity, and invest energy into public life. Lokmanya Tilak gave a vigorous start to this process. However, there were several challenges to be reckoned with such as his imprisonment and banishment from society, because the mainstream political leaders of the day were mostly timid. A stark shift in this configuration came about after Lord Curzon’s infamous decision to partition Bengal. Sister Nivedita’s influence came to the forefront in this environment.   

Two unique features characterize Sister Nivedita’s manifold achievements:

  1. She immersed herself in all activities required to resurrect the Hindu society at the time, and reaped brilliant results in all fields.
  2. She conceptualized Aggressive Hinduism that philosophically underpinned the nationalistic movement.          

To this day, we reverentially remember Sister Nivedita as the promulgator of a philosophy that gave a new direction to Swadeshi ideology and the freedom movement.

The consequences of Sister Nivedita’s philosophy proved to be extraordinarily diverse. Along with rejuvenating the process of freedom acquisition — which is now an established fact — it transformed many aspects of national life such as education, study of history and mythology, application of Swadeshi principles in art and literature, propagation of scientific thought founded on native ideals, and formation of intellectually sound, conscientious social workers who could tackle the extant ways and codes of British rule. Sister Nivedita inaugurated avenues to carry out countless national and spiritual missions that Swami Vivekananda envisaged. Eleven decades have passed since her passing. Even so, the cardinal points of her advocacy — viz., adoption of indigenous ideas in education and embracing Indian ideals of art and literature — remain central to the discourse of national development.

Indian natives were a tad unappreciative of Margaret Noble in the early days of her arrival. Swami Vivekananda made no response to this. He knew full well that India had a long way to go in enriching herself. Among the numerous gifts Swamiji possessed, a sound understanding of the Indian pulse stands out. When a string of influential people came forward to supply adequate monetary support to his initiatives, he gently declined their offer. It was imperative for his chosen mission to progress in a slow place. The Swamiji was keenly alive to this fact.

Brahmo Samaj exerted a great influence on the people of eastern India during the last portion of the nineteenth century. While it propounded a pursuit of Brahman alone, the school of thought advocated by Sri Ramakrishna and Swami Vivekananda worked at different levels to revitalize all facets of Hinduism. Naturally, reconciliation between these was difficult. Uninformed adherents of Brahmo Samaj considered Swamiji as their opponent and went as far as to hurl unfound allegations at him. By 1890, Brahmo Samaj had become a crumbling institution. However, it played an important role in protecting Hindu culture from relentless foreign onslaughts. (This observation also holds good as far as Divya Jnana Samaj and such organizations are concerned.)

The Tagore family was closely associated with Brahmo Samaj right from the days of its inception. Perhaps prompted by this, Devendranath Tagore and Rabindranath Tagore were lukewarm in their response to Swami Vivekananda’s activities. Sister Nivedita played a pivotal role in bringing together Swami Vivekananda and the Tagore family.

Prologue to a New Era

Swami Vivekananda sculpted the awe-inspiring idol that is Sister Nivedita. In later years, she became his foremost intellectual successor and inimitably expounded on his vision for India’s development. She proclaimed: “Swami Vivekananda is my dharma, my patriotism.”

The Swamiji’s plan of activities extended far beyond the scope of religious reform. On one occasion he remarked: “My mission is not Ramakrishna’s nor Vedanta’s nor anything, but simply to bring manhood to my people.”

Sister Nivedita subscribed to this view through and through and calibrated her life to suit this purpose. Since Swami Vivekananda reiterated the above on multiple occasions, it cannot be blithely brushed aside as an occasion-driven remark. One of his popular proclamations is in order:

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 … When we have worshipped this, we shall be able to worship all other gods.

This one teaching of Swami Vivekananda resonated with every cell of Sister Nivedita’s being. To meet this objective, she made an ultimate, irrevocable sacrifice.

The Swamiji made every effort to ensure his pronouncement is not misconstrued as a new system of reformation. Sister Nivedita considered the dissemination of the Swamiji’s twofold scheme of thought as her life-mission: resuscitation of Upanishadic philosophy, activation and remodulation of society based on the same. 

Oneness with India

Sister Nivedita was born in a family of revolutionaries — John Noble, her grandfather, Samuel Richmond, her father, and Hamilton, her uncle were all active participants in the Irish freedom struggle. Because of this background, she readily acknowledged India’s eagerness to receive freedom, although she found it difficult to cognize our country in the initial days of her arrival. Her regard for India increased by leaps and bounds after she came under the influence of Swami Vivekananda. In the latter half of 1898, she travelled across the Himalayas along with Swamiji and delivered several speeches against the Imperial government.

Swami Vivekananda had rightly recognized that achieving freedom is but a single aspect of India’s awakening. According to him, the primary aim of this renaissance was to secure for India her long-lost, exalted position of Vishwa-guru. Sister Nivedita propagated this message through her inspiring eloquence and manifold activities.

Many of Nivedita’s sayings are weighty and revealing. A sample suffices to illustrate: “Let us serve Mother India instead of supplicating unseen deities.” (paraphrased)

One is wonderstruck at the brilliance of her thought and action. Two reasons account for it: (1) she had developed a keen acumen and sensitivity by constant contemplation, (2) she had the unique opportunity of interacting with Swami Vivekananda directly and listening to several of his speeches live.

If we acquaint ourselves with a subject by indirect means, it is likely to remain as raw information within us. Direct perception and collaborative thinking help transform this information into a value. Is there not a qualitative difference between looking at a picture of Niagara Falls and marveling at its grandeur by beholding it directly?

As time progressed, Nivedita’s emotional and intellectual outlook turned into an exact reflection of Swami Vivekananda’s stance. The Swamiji had suggested Nivedita to return to her homeland when the general response to her philosophical movement was unenthusiastic. But she was resolute in her devotion to India.    

Rendered distraught by hostile circumstances, several of her followers expressed grave misgivings about her efforts to transform society. She coolly replied:

The captain of a ship is always thinking of his port of destination … The port I am making for is the fulfilment of India’s destiny. That is the course on which my compass is set night and day.

The Swamiji had proclaimed:

India I loved before I came away. Now the very dust of India has become holy to me, the very air is now to me holy; it is now the holy land, the place of pilgrimage, the Tirtha.

Sister Nivedita accepted Swamiji’s unalloyed devotion as her own and worked ceaselessly to realize it in practice.

Spiritual Initiation

Swami Vivekananda himself proclaimed that he bestowed upon Nivedita every ounce of his accumulated energy. On 25.3.1898, he initiated her to asceticism and accorded the title ‘Nivedita,’ ‘the devoted one.’ This was as befitting as it was natural. 

Swamiji transformed Margaret Noble into Nivedita merely two months after her arrival in India. He had by then taken stock of her inner strength and was eager to employ her abilities practically. Sister Nivedita inimitably lived up to his expectations. Standing at the threshold of youth at the time of entering India, she did not lose heart at the imperativeness of learning everything anew. In the very first meeting of her meeting Sarada Devi, the Mother exclaimed, “My daughter, I am delighted to see you.” Could anything be more gratifying? Sarada Devi’s addressing this stranger as “daughter” generated ripples among the inner circles.

Margaret Noble indeed had the blessings of Swami Vivekananda. The Swamiji, however, was not overtly partial to her in the days of training. He intended her to become one with everyone, without ever feeling special. Nivedita has herself documented her experience in entering the Swamiji’s sphere of influence:

It seems as if going to school had commenced; and just as schooling is often disagreeable to the taught, so here, though it caused infinite pain, the blindness of a half-view must be done away with. A mind must be brought to change its centre of gravity. It was never more than this; never the dictating of opinion or creed … He had revealed a different standpoint in thought and feeling, so completely and strongly as to make it impossible for me to rest, until later, by my own labours, I had arrived at a view in which both these partial presentments stood rationalized and accounted for … But at the time they were a veritable lion in the path, and remained so until I had grasped the folly of allowing anything whatever to obscure to me the personality that was here revealing itself.

[The author wrote this as an introductory essay to his book on Sister Nivedita titled Agnipathike Nivedita in Kannada.]

To be continued.

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Author(s)

About:

Dr. S R Ramaswamy is a renowned journalist, writer, art critic, environmentalist, and social activist. He has authored over fifty books and thousands of articles. He was a close associate of greats like D. V. Gundappa and Rallapalli Anantakrishna Sharma. He is currently the honorary Editor-in-Chief of Utthana and the Honorary Secretary of the Gokhale Institute of Public Affairs.

Translator(s)

About:

Shashi Kiran B N holds a bachelor’s degree in Mechanical Engineering and a master's degree in Sanskrit. His interests include Indian aesthetics, Hindu scriptures, Sanskrit and Kannada literature, and philosophy. A literary aficionado, Shashi enjoys composing poetry set to classical meters in Sanskrit. He co-wrote a translation of Śatāvadhāni Dr. R Ganesh’s Kannada work Kavitegondu Kathe.

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