Although Sister Nivedita was born in a foreign land and came to India only upon the influence of Swami Vivekananda, she dedicated her entire being to rejuvenate the Hindu society. To this end, she assiduously worked on multiple fronts. The salience of her dedication has earned for her an exalted place in Indian history. It is almost impossible to name a freedom fighter of her make and mettle. Alongside chalking out plans to reform society and politics, she made elaborate attempts to popularize the study of Hindu culture and introduce Indian principles in the analysis of art and literature. Herself at the helm of the fight for freedom, she motivated scores of people to plunge into the movement. Thanks to her wise counsel, underground activists who were hitherto unconnected came together and developed intellectual rigour. She provided a new perspective to study our ancient texts, especially those of mythology. Most importantly, she helped establish a system of education based on Indian values, which formed the basis of all these activities.
The foregoing is but a rapid survey of Nivedita’s achievements. Her monumental work generated numerous ancillary results. For instance, the accomplishments of Indian scientists such as Prafulla Chandra Ray would probably be unknown to the larger world but for the efforts of Sister Nivedita. And not considering this would make the history of modern Indian science incomplete.
Nivedita’s seminal achievement is awakening the innate pride of Indians by making them aware of their own hallowed heritage, thereby equipping them to combat British rule. She successfully utilized cultural and historical points of inspiration to consolidate society. Labelling this as a novel approach is perhaps unnecessary, because all her work is but an age-appropriate application of Atharva-veda’s vision: mātā bhūmiḥ putro’haṃ pṛthivyāḥ. She rekindled the spirit of nationalism that had lost lustre to great success. Swami Dayananda Sarasvati gave a clarion call to develop self-pride; Swami Vivekananda took this message to the global stage; Sister Nivedita concretized it in India.
To narrate the same in a different way, Sister Nivedita bridged the chasm that had somehow developed between Vedanta and nationalism. In the initial years of the twentieth century, this synthesis was the exact need of the hour. Sri Aurobindo derived mighty inspiration from Sister Nivedita and categorically posited the inseparability of Hinduism and nationalism.
Sister Nivedita faced extraordinarily difficult challenges. Her interior was so metal-like that once she decided on the path forward, she never looked back, even in the face of the grimmest of situations. In one of his letters to her, Swami Vivekananda had discreetly remarked: “The tusks of the elephant come out, but never go back; so are the words of a man never retracted.”
Sister Nivedita adopted a lifestyle that was simple and austere. It was so transparent that she never felt the need to explain it in words. Indeed, she was simplicity personified. Returning to her residence on one summer afternoon, she was consumed by a compulsion to live in the same way as the millions of Indians. Immediately, she had her bed removed, spread a mat on the ground and lay down. Mother Sarada Devi once told her:
Have unstinted devotion to your Guru. The love you show to a pure, ideal character will surely elevate your being. Such is the bond between master and disciple. Only pure love irradiates the heart … Contemplate on my words. Your devotion to Swamiji is the same as mine to Sri Ramakrishna. (paraphrased)
Sister Nivedita’s philosophy is best illustrated in her advice to a young man who had taken to renunciation: “God is in action, in the play of life.”
Alongside being supremely active herself, Nivedita nourished vivacity in a host of people. This is one of her significant achievements.
Jagadish Chandra Bose and Sister Nivedita developed a keen collaboration that proved enormously beneficial for the world. They first met in one of the gatherings of Brahmo Samaj. Jagadish Chandra Bose hypothesized that even seemingly inanimate objects such as metals are imbued with life. Nivedita urged him to document his findings systematically; she also provided ample support in this regard.
Fount of Inspiration
At the beginning of the twentieth century, pro-freedom activities were prevalent largely in North India. Subramanya Bharathi was one of the first people to ignite the spark of freedom among the southerners. He drew inspiration from Sister Nivedita. The freedom songs composed by Subramanya Bharati are popular even today.
He dedicated his anthology of freedom songs, Svadeśa-gītaṅgaḻ, to Sister Nivedita. He also wrote a longform poem on her, titled Nivedita Devi.
At a critical juncture, Sister Nivedita played a pivotal role in giving a solid shape to Sri Aurobindo’s synthesis of dharma and nationalism. Swami Vivekananda aphoristically expressed the indivisibility of these concepts; Sister Nivedita glossed on it masterfully and inspired Aurobindo to take up its commentary on a large scale.
Indianness in Practice
Nivedita discussed at great length with Ananda Coomaraswamy, the well-known art historian, about the existence of a uniquely Indian school of painting. As a result of these discussions, an institution by name Indian Society of Oriental Art was founded in 1907.
Today, many of Sister Nivedita’s opinions have found largescale acceptance; but when she initially expressed them eleven decades ago, they were considered revolutionary. She had to face opposition and insubordination on multiple occasions. At the time, only an imitation of Greek plaster art was taught in art schools. There was no room for anything Indian. E. B. Havell, the principal of Government School of Art in Calcutta, had said: “In an institutionalized mechanism like this, it is perhaps only possible to teach the techniques of art.” He was not a vocal opponent of Nivedita’s views; even so, he had to take this moderate stand. Sister Nivedita, however, was unyielding. “It is of course possible to introduce the Indian approach to students,” she maintained. Because of her encouragement, a gifted artist like Abanindranath Tagore rose through the school’s ranks. In later years, Abanindranath completely forsook western styles. His portraitures of Uma in meditation and Bharat Mata are quite famous.
When Rabindranath Tagore requested Nivedita to teach English to his last daughter, she outrightly refused: “I can never impart alien education to a child of the Tagore family.” Rabindranath eventually accepted her views. He perhaps envisioned the character of Gora as one completely wedded to Indian ideals based on the personality of Sister Nivedita. The two of them discussed the novel’s storyline on many occasions.
Like Rabindranath Tagore, Sister Nivedita was convinced that the roots of the present-day Indian society lie in Vedas, Purāṇas, Ramāyaṇa, and Mahābhārata. Several of her works are nothing but modern expositions of India’s timeless heritage.
Her writings that draw attention to changes required in education are cited and discussed time and again, even decades after their initial publication. During her time, Nivedita alone argued for the inclusion of Swadeshi precepts in art and literature.
In those days, only a handful of foreigners spoke of magnificent creations such as those at Ajanta and Ellora. Sister Nivedita wrote a series of articles in Modern Review, drawing the world’s attention to these splendid pieces of art. Her essays received widespread acclaim. (Interestingly, she was then unacquainted with Ramanand Chatterjee, the editor of the journal.) After the publication of these articles, Nivedita introduced to Mr. Chatterjee the subtle nuances of journalism adopted in the West. Consequently, Modern Review gained nation-wide popularity in a short span of time.
Sister Nivedita had to dedicate a good amount of her time to journalism. Starting from 1906, she regularly contributed learned articles to periodicals such as Prabuddha Bharata, Sandhya, The Dawn, and New India. She was the life-force of Yugantara, the periodical started by Bhupendranath Datta, Swami Vivekananda’s brother, in early-1906. In mid-1907, Bhupendranath was imprisoned and Nivedita herself managed his family and Yugantara. Shortly thereafter, Sri Aurobindo was imprisoned, and the responsibility of supervising Karmayogin, his journal, fell on her.
Nivedita’s patriotism was not restricted to public speeches. In the girls’ school she established in Kolkata, Vande Mataram was the daily prayer. The school focused on Swadeshi tenets and taught its pupils to spin khadi. Not only was the school an exemplary educational institution, it was also the meeting-point of artists, science enthusiasts, and nationalists. Barindra Kumar Ghosh, Aurobindo’s younger brother, enthusiastically participated in these meetings.
Sister Nivedita described her school as an institution that “teaches life.”
A Christian woman by name Muller was appreciative of Nivedita’s efforts. She offered a huge sum as donation to her school, with the caveat that it should not be against Christian practices. Nivedita had by then decided to completely avoid Christianity’s influence on the school, despite having to face severe difficulties because of this stand. She gently declined Ms. Muller’s offer. Evidently, Sister Nivedita was unswerving in her fidelity to Swadeshi values.
A group of students once welcomed her with chants of “hip hip hurray!” when she was touring Midnapur. Nivedita was incensed. “Do you need an alien tongue to express your excitement? Come on, recite after me: vāhe gurū kī phate,” she roared. Rash Behari Bose famously said:
If our sister fell under the spell of India, we in turn fell under her spell, and her bewitching personality attracted thousands of our young men to her. If the dry bones are beginning to stir, it is because Sister Nivedita breathed the breath of life into them.
In the conference of Congress that took place in 1905 at Varanasi under the presidentship of Gopal Krishna Gokhale, Sister Nivedita’s participation drew the most interest. Nivedita demonstrated her idea of the Indian flag for the first time in the summit. At the centre of the national flag that she had envisioned was Vajrāyudha, thunderbolt, which immediately recalls Maharṣi Dadhīci’s ultimate sacrifice.
Speaking of her motivation to pursue a self-charted path, she said: “Swamiji asked me to forge a mighty weapon out of the bones of the Bengali youths which can free India.”
The following excerpt from Kali the Mother indicates Sister Nivedita’s unconditional dedication and steadfastness:
Arise, my child, and go forth a man! Bear manfully what is your lot to bear; that which comes to thy hand to be done, do with full strength and fear not. Forget not that I, the giver of manhood, the giver of womanhood, the holder of victory, am thy Mother. Think not life is serious! What is destiny but thy Mother’s play? Come, be My playfellow awhile, — meet all happenings merrily … Ask not of plans. Needs the arrow any plan when it is loosed from the bow? Such art you. When the life is lived, the plan will stand revealed. Till then, O child of time, know nothing! … Ask nothing. See nothing. Plan nothing. Let My will flow through you, as the ocean through an empty shell.
Nivedita wrote of Kali not just as a piece of literature; she received a vision of the Supreme Mother while staying at Bospara lane and articulated the same poignantly. In that ecstatic state, she used to involuntarily exclaim ‘Kali!’ ‘Kali!’ Many people including Bipin Chandra Pal were witnesses to this; they experienced horripilating happiness.
Fearlessness, Refined Thinking
Sister Nivedita delivered a series of lectures in 1904 on the cardinal features of Hinduism. These talks held in Madras (now Chennai) introduced to Hindus the way to look at their culture in the changing environment. Nivedita’s exposition was novel and extremely forceful; it addressed a dire need of the time.
She emphasized more on issues of social and cultural significance than on philosophical tenets. For a good number of years, she gave enlightening discourses on prevalent issues such as ‘modern science and Hindu ethos,’ ‘India’s indivisibility,’ ‘India’s motherhood,’ and ‘how to view the English language?’ She constantly conversed with students and youths to impart important life-lessons.
Her speeches were invariably fiery. More often than not, people attending her talks feared imprisonment and quietly vanished. Nivedita, however, continued undaunted. In 1908, she travelled to England and America to publicize the need for India’s freedom. On many occasions, because of numerous galvanizing speeches, the British Government was on the verge of ordering her banishment. None of this had the slightest effect on either her thoughts or articulation. She continued to be in contact with underground revolutionaries.
Upon returning to India (Bombay) after a foreign tour in 1909, she had to step out incognito because the police were on the lookout for her. Nivedita’s incessant emphasis on the importance of nationalistic thought did not go well with some eminences of the Ramakrishna Order. She then took a bitter decision to stay away from the Order.
Service to Literature
In his preface to Nivedita’s seminal work The Web of Indian Life, Rabindranath Tagore noted:
For some time past a spirit of retaliation has taken possession of our literature and our social world … The prejudice cultivated on the side of the powerful is no doubt dangerous for the weak … The upsetting of truth in the relationship of the ruler and the ruled can never be compensated by the power that lies in the grip of the mailed fist. And this was the reason which made us deeply grateful to Sister Nivedita, that great-hearted Western woman, when she gave utterance to her criticism of Indian life. She had won her access to the inmost heart of our society by her supreme gift of sympathy. She did not come to us with the impertinent curiosity of a visitor, nor did she elevate herself on a special high perch with the idea that a bird’s eye view is truer than the human view because of its supreme aloofness. She lived our life and came to know us by becoming one of ourselves.
Another of Nivedita’s important works is The Master as I Saw Him. When it was first published on the columns of Prabuddha Bharata in 1906, it received acclaim as a work offering rare insights into the personality of Swami Vivekananda and as a unique model of narrating life-sketches. It is regarded as one of the best books on the Swamiji to this day. The Web of Indian Life, Cradle Tales of Hinduism, and Kali the Mother are modern commentaries on the hoary Indian tradition. Aggressive Hinduism is a formative work that opened the eyes of the Hindu society to its time-destined duty.
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By the foregoing rapid survey of events, one can easily understand how draining the years 1905–10 must have been for Sister Nivedita. After 1910, she was tormented by acute diarrhoea. Nivedita understood that her end was imminent. On the first week of October in 1911, she wrote her will and testament, transferring the copyright of her writings and entire property to Ramakrishna Mutt. After that, she continued in the mortal frame only for a few days. She passed away on 13.10.1911.