Remembering Sister Nivedita, the Champion of India
The freedom fighter and social reformer Bipin Chandra Pal once remarked ‘I doubt whether any Indian loved India the way Nivedita loved her.’
For a person born and brought up in far off Ireland, Sister Nivedita did embrace India and offer it a lot more than love. In the thirteen years she lived here, she followed her guru Swami Vivekananda, helped get funding for the scientific research Jagdish Chandra Bose did, took his work to the world, helped set up the famous Bengal School of Art and inspired Abanindranath Tagore to create the first image of ‘Bharat Mata’ which became a powerful symbol for India. She inspired all she met and immersed herself in the spirit of a nation, reawakening.
– In 1895, she attended a private social gathering in London, to hear a ‘Hindoo Yogi’
Born Margaret Elizabeth Noble in 1867 to Scots-Irish parents in Northern Ireland, Sister Nivedita had an early grounding in the spiritual. Her father was a pastor who imbibed in her the values of service from an early age. At the age of seventeen, she started a career, teaching at a school in Keswick, England and by 1892 she had started a school of her own, in Northern Ireland.
A prolific writer and experimental educationalist, she quickly gained a formidable reputation and her success brought her in touch with London’s intellectual elite. In 1895, she attended a private social gathering in London, to hear a ‘Hindoo Yogi’ then making waves across Europe and the United States. It was an event which would change the course of her life.
– Her meeting with Swami Vivekananda changed the course of her life
The man she met was none other than Swami Vivekananda. Margaret was highly inspired by his teachings and after a few meetings, she decided that she would come to India. In her, Vivekananda found a kindred spirit who could inspire women and encourage them to get an education. Margaret arrived in India in 1898.
During her first few months here, Swami Vivekananda devoted his time in explaining to her India’s history, philosophy, traditions and literature. Noble took the vow of Brahmacharya and was given the name ‘Nivedita,’ or the dedicated one. As noted by her in the book ‘The Master As I Saw Him’' :
‘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 learning phase, Sister Nivedita settled and established a school for girls from orthodox families in the Baghbazar area of Calcutta in 1898. During the plague epidemic in Calcutta in 1899, Nivedita nursed patients and participated in the cleaning of the streets.
– She collaborated with the secret revolutionary movement
Swami Vivekananda passed away in 1902. In the absence of her spiritual mentor, Nivedita decided to move beyond her social role and involve herself more politically. Between 1902 and 1906, she worked on political mobilization, advising moderates like Gokhale, taking up dialogue with extremist nationalists and even collaborating with the secret revolutionary movement, led by Sri Aurobindo. She travelled across India, delivering lectures and inspiring the youth to take up the cause of India’s freedom.
In 1905, when the cataclysmic partition of Bengal jolted the national consciousness, Nivedita gave full support to the swadeshi campaign through her writing and lectures.
This was the time when India was rediscovering itself. As a reaction to Anglicism, which saw the ‘East’ as inferior and in need to be ‘civilized’, Indian intellectuals were asking themselves ‘What does it mean to be an Indian?’
Nivedita was at the forefront of this intellectual ferment and set out to forcefully make her point She would write in the journal Karma Yogini:
‘Are the countrymen of Bhaskaracharya and Shankaracharya inferior to the countrymen of Newton and Darwin? We trust not. It is for us, by the power of our thought, to break down the iron walls of opposition that confront us, and to seize and enjoy the intellectual sovereignty of the world.’
She put this line of thinking into action, organizing funds for noted scientist Jagdish Chandra Bose's research and assisting him in taking his work to a world audience.
She also asked Indian artists to rediscover the roots of their own artistic traditions, like the paintings at Ajanta and Mughal miniatures, at a time when their practice was largely influenced by the traditions of the West.
– It was her idea to worship the nation as a ‘mother’
In her efforts to revive Indian art, she got together experts like Ananda Coomaraswamy and EB Havell and established the Bengal School of Art. In fact, it was her idea of worshipping the nation as a ‘mother’ which influenced Abanindranath Tagore to paint Bharat Mata, the posters of which were distributed across the country, to rally the masses.
In 1906, as East Bengal faced a devastating famine, Sister Nivedita got involved in the relief work and contracted a severe form of malaria which she took several months to recover from. This adversely impaired her health, eventually leading to her premature death in 1911 at the age of just 44.
Today, there are roads and institutions named after her across India, but her memorial in Darjeeling remains neglected and her legacy, largely forgotten.
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