Sister Nivedita: The offered one
On her 150th birth anniversary, a tribute to Sister Nivedita, the Irish educationist and Vivekananda disciple who became one of colonial India's towering personalities
Born Margaret Elizabeth Noble, 150 years ago today, in Northern Ireland, the teacher, social worker and thinker who would come to be known throughout India as Sister Nivedita, loved and served the country in a manner few have. Noble was famously inspired after hearing Swami Vivekananda lecture in London, and at the age of 30 she decided to make India her home. Until her death, only 14 years later, she lived and worked among Indians.
Nivedita made a series of diverse contributions to the national project: women’s education and empowerment, helping foster a sense of Indian nationalism, reviving some art forms, promoting science, propagating civic virtues and working on humanitarian relief during epidemics and famines. She was a true champion of India, its finest minds, its achievements and its culture.
An inquiring mind
Noble came from a family of Wesleyan ministers. Her maternal grandfather was a respected member of the Irish national movement. Yet Noble’s early life was spent in considerable deprivation—she lost her father when she was only 10 years old, studying thereafter at a charitable boarding school in northern England. At 17, she began working as a teacher to take care of her mother and younger siblings. By 25, she had started her own school in Wimbledon. She acquired a reputation as an experimental educationist, influenced by ideas popular in continental Europe at the time, including those of Friedrich Froebel, father of the kindergarten concept. Her success brought her in touch with London’s intellectual crème de la crème, and in November 1895, in what proved to be a pivotal moment in her life, she was invited to a private gathering to hear a 32-year-old “Hindu yogi" who had acquired a considerable reputation in America in the preceding two years.
At the gathering, Swami Vivekananda’s words seemed to speak directly to Noble’s own beliefs about the best in human nature. His words were a call to action: to serve suffering humanity, to sacrifice one’s life for the good of others, this was what the Earth’s best and bravest were born for. Vivekananda recognized that Noble could be of huge assistance in his efforts to uplift Indian women. Noble knew she had found her true calling.
She recounted later: “I had recognized the heroic fibre of the man, and desired to make myself the servant of his love for his own people. But it was his character to which I had thus done obeisance."
The citizen ideal
Noble arrived in India in January 1898. For nine months, she received intensive training from Vivekananda, who opened the magical maze of India to her. In March that year, Noble received diksha (initiation) into a life of spirituality and service. She was given the name Nivedita—“the offered one". They, along with a few others, also undertook a five-month journey across the northern and western parts of the country, during which Vivekananda spoke on religion, history, geography and ethnology. In India, she found her soul’s home and destiny.
Nivedita noted that her mentor was fascinated with every phase of India’s long history, and with all the diverse elements that were interwoven in its tapestry. In The Master As I Saw Him, she wrote of her guru:
“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 the purity and steadfastness of noble women, all lived again. Nor would he permit that the Mohammedan should 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 in the Bengali neighbourhood of Baghbazar in north Calcutta (now Kolkata), an area Europeans hardly ventured into. In November, still in her first year in the country, she started a school at her home, 16, Bosepara Lane, for girls from orthodox families, where child marriage was widespread and girls were hardly educated. She believed that education for Indian girls should combine traditional Indian values—epitomized by the “family ideal"—and the development of a world view through the study of history, geography, and science (she considered these subjects to be the foundation of modern education), forming the core of the “citizen ideal".
As time passed, Nivedita increasingly felt that Vivekananda’s teachings were so vast and sweeping that she needed a definite reference point in order to put them into action. Nivedita realized that India’s regeneration most urgently required the self-awareness of being one nation, the desire to take control of her own destiny by freeing herself from foreign rule.
Man-making to nation-building
Vivekananda died in 1902. As Nivedita thought about the future direction of her work, she decided to translate Vivekananda’s concept of “man-making" into “nation-building". She began channelling her efforts into introducing a conception of “nationality" (the term she used) to India, instilling it in the hearts and minds of people. Her definition of nationality meant people would feel for this land as their spiritual home, identifying with it, making it an essential part of the citizen’s self-concept, an extension of the self. To her, this was the highest form of nationality, one that did not rely merely on the political view of the nation based on the citizen-state dynamic.
Nivedita wrote profusely on Indian nationhood. She argued that India was a synthesis, and that the story of its analysed fragments, racial, lingual, or political, could never be the story of India. She believed the British were quick to understand the underlying unity of the country and used this knowledge to place it under a common administration, relentlessly attacking the idea that it was the British colonials who had united India. In a lecture given in December 1902 in Madras (now Chennai), she wrote: “If India had no unity herself, no unity could be 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; but it was the gift of no one."
She plunged into a whirlwind of activity, contributing towards myriad aspects of national awakening. Nivedita’s Baghbazar quarters became a rendezvous of sorts for eminent Indians of the time, such as Rabindranath Tagore, Jagadish Chandra Bose, Gopal Krishna Gokhale and Aurobindo Ghosh. Her young admirers included revolutionaries as well as budding artists and intellectuals. Though she was not much in agreement with the mild petitionary methods of the Moderates, she maintained close friendships with nationalist 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 Subramania Bharati, who met Nivedita only once, considered her his guru, writing that she “showed me the form of Bharat Mata in its completeness and taught me to love my country." She also imprinted on his mind the ideals of conjugality and womanhood, which helped Bharati become a champion of women’s empowerment in his later years.
In 1905, the cataclysmic partition of Bengal galvanized the national consciousness. Through her writing and lectures, Nivedita gave full support to the swadeshi campaign, urging people to go all out in swadeshi-sadhana. She was one of the first practitioners of the idea of worship of the nation as mother. Following the Bengal partition, when the government prohibited the singing or chanting of Bande Mataram, Nivedita continued it as part of her school’s daily routine. She passionately advocated the idea of worshipping the nation-mother. She held Hindus and Muslims to be 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 a flag for the Indian nation, way back in 1905. She chose the vajra (thunderbolt). Nivedita’s design of two crossed vajras was meant to signify the coordinated and selfless actions of multiple individuals, acting in effect as one national organism. Nivedita had this design embroidered by the girls of her Calcutta school and it was displayed at an exhibition organized by the Indian National Congress in 1906 in Calcutta. 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 India’s highest military decoration, the Param Vir Chakra.
Art, science and literature
Nivedita was a great champion of the Tata Institute, which would later become the Indian Institute of Science, in Bengaluru. She wrote about it extensively in the Indian as well as English press, meeting high officials and rallying the support of some of the world’s best minds when the British government, under Lord Curzon, scuttled J.N. Tata’s proposal of founding a research institute of science and humanities in India. But her more direct contribution was to the career of the pioneering Indian scientist J.C. Bose. She helped him for more than a decade, organizing a steady stream of funds for research, editing and assisting him in the writing of four important books that took his explorations to a world audience, at a time when he faced serious discrimination from the British scientific establishment.
Nivedita played a crucial role in inspiring Indian artists to rediscover the roots of their own artistic traditions at a time when their 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 School of Art in Calcutta) and Abanindranath Tagore, that led to the flourishing of what came to be known as the Bengal School of Art. A new generation of young painters grew, and some of the best-known today, like Nandalal Bose, were particularly inspired by her. Nivedita was at the forefront of the movement attacking the then prevalent Western claim that Hellenic art had inspired Indian art, and that there were no real Indian artistic traditions before that.
Nivedita was a prolific writer who published more than half a dozen books in her short lifetime, on themes of Indian history, Indian womanhood, education, nationhood, art and mythology. She also published an astute study of Vivekananda, several booklets, and scores of articles in the Indian as well as British press. This writing, now available in five volumes titled The Complete Works Of Sister Nivedita, is a rare insight into her brilliant mind.
Nivedita’s work as a humanitarian was also remarkable. She put her own life in significant peril on several occasions of great calamity, such as during the plague outbreak in Calcutta in 1899 and the great East Bengal famine of 1906. After her stint in the famine-struck countryside of East Bengal, she contracted a severe form of malaria; it took her months to recover. The malaria impaired her health, eventually leading to her premature death. Rabindranath Tagore, who had seen her from close quarters and “felt her tremendous power", referred to her as “Loka-Mata" (Mother of the People).
Like Vivekananda, who died at the young age of 39, Nivedita too exhausted herself. She died in Darjeeling on 13 October 1911, a fortnight before she would have completed 44 years. “Drunk with India", as a friend described her, she was known to repeat “Bharatavarsha" on her rosary beads. She had once written: “My life is given to India. In it I shall live and die." Her guru had set her course with the blessing: “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 the trust Vivekananda had reposed in her.
Vinayak Lohani is a humanitarian worker and founder of Parivaar.org, which is inspired by the spiritual and humanistic ideals of Sri Ramakrishna and Swami Vivekananda.