Sister Nivedita – Offering At The Altar of Mother India

Shantanu Dey

A famous Bengali poet once wrote –

উমা হৈমবতীর অর্ঘ্য পেল ওলাই চন্ডী কি তায়

বেসান্ত পাবে সে নৈবেদ্য অর্পিত যা নিবেদিতায়।

The meaning of this verse, though not literal, is that the tribute or offering meant for the divine mother Durga goes to a local goddess. Annie Besant, best known for her theosophical society background and political work got recognition which was perhaps more befitting for Sister Nivedita.

Indeed, an ardent admirer of the life and works of Sister Nivedita is bound to be disappointed at times by the gross underrating of her efforts by contemporary and post-independence historians and political leadership of India. In this respect they have followed their colonial masters. Post-independence, Indian History has witnessed a zeal to maintain the secular credentials of India and this has often come at a cost; anything being perceived, even remotely as religious or spiritual, especially​ connected to the revival of the so called aggressive Hinduism, was regarded with suspicion. Sister Nivedita had often been accused as one of the architects of its revival. Therefore, it is not surprising that she would be considered as an untouchable by certain historians to the extent of even ignoring her contributions​ towards nation building particularly at a juncture when the Independence movement was at a very nascent stage. Fortunately, there have been several conscientious people who kept alive the interest in her and her work, the most notable among them being Shankari Prasad Basu, to whom we are eternally indebted for his magnum opus in Bengali – “Nivedita Lokamata” spread over two volumes. But the efforts of the contemporary historians have borne fruit as her contribution is now almost unknown to the people in general. Even the contemporary media, in order to prove its secular credentials, has shunted her. There is not even a passing reference in English media about her contributions and legacy. Everybody seems to be aware of the general facts; that she was an English disciple of Swami Vivekananda, established a girl’s school and participated in National Movement but the story stops there. This article is a humble attempt to bring forth some of her most notable contributions towards India, which were possibly no less spectacular, if not much more than some of those leaders of the National Movement who have gained special favour among post-independence academia.

What were her major contributions, apart from establishing a girls’ school? We may provide a brief outline before elaborating upon her contributions in detail in the subsequent paragraphs –

  • She was one of the first to realize the importance of promoting the Indian school of art at a time when contemporary Indian artists were too prone to imitating the European school for quick fame and prosperity. She influenced EB Havell and his students, notably, Abanindranath Tagore, Asit Haldar, Nandalal Bose and many of the later artists as well. She actively promoted the idea that Indian school of art was very different from that of Greek school and had evolved on its own earlier though imperialists like Fergusson alleged that Indian art was a mimicry of the Greek art

  • Her sacrifice for the school she had set up to educate girls, knew no bounds. She travelled to America to raise funds and was often driven to misery and despair owing to failure of her attempts, except for generous help from few sympathizers like Betty Leggett. She had to fight many battles here to establish India’s credibility and often battled outright hostility and opposition, with very little help coming from the sources

  • She was an ardent champion of India in international forum. She could never stand even a whiff of criticism against India and Indians. The best example would be her battle against Lord Curzon which she fought singlehandedly. She exposed Curzon in more than one ways and established the legitimacy and validated the richness of Indian Civilisation through her writings and speeches

  • Her attempts to alleviate some of the grossest misunderstandings and misrepresentations of the Indian and Hindu way of life through her writings like “Web of Indian life”, “Cradle tales of Hinduism”, “Kali the Mother” and her speeches in America and England, her debates and discussions with missionaries and some of the enemies within India, notably the Ramabai circle on the status of Indian women

  • Her stout defense of India’s right for revival of science and higher education – without her we could not have got a Jagadish Chandra Bose as she did all she could to ensure Bose got recognition, money for research and legitimacy in a hostile environment dominated by racist sentiments. Though not openly admitted by Tata’s for unknown reasons, without her active efforts which were spread over several years and her open battle with Curzon and other British officials on India’s right to higher education we probably would not have had the Indian Institute of Science as was envisioned by JN Tata and inspired by Swami Vivekananda

  • Her participation in several relief and rehabilitation programmes out of compassion, notably dealing with the plague epidemic that had gripped Calcutta in 1899 along with Ramakrishna Mission monks and her travel to East Bengal during cyclone relief to help people in distress

  • Her contribution towards Indian Independence movement stands above everything else. There she was the shining beacon, very aptly described by Rabindranath Tagore as the Lokomata, mother of the people. She inspired a host of luminaries including Tamil Poet Subramanya Bharati who regarded her as his guru, Rabindranath Tagore who acknowledged his indebtedness to Nivedita for many of his writings and at least three of the early translations including that of “Kabuliwalah”, political leaders both moderates and extremists like Gopalkrishna Gokhale, Aurobindo Ghosh and many other young leaders of the revolutionary movement. Under her guidance came up Anushilon Samity and other societies undertaking nationalist works. She had a very cordial relationship with most of the Nationalist leaders like Bipin Chandra Pal, Dr Rashbehari Ghosh, Brahmabandhav Upadhyaya, Satish Chandra Mukherjee, Surendranath Tagore, Barindra Ghosh, Bhupendranath Datta, Aswini Kumar Datta and others

  • She came up with the design of the first national flag of India, with the emblem of thunderbolt

Margaret Elizabeth Noble was dedicated from birth for God’s work, at least that’s what her father said in his deathbed and that’s what her mother believed. She grew up to be an ardent educationist, finding interest in the new methodologies of education as proposed by Froebel and Pestalozzi. She gave expression to her talents in writing and very soon became a member of the Sesame Club which also boasted of such illustrious names as George Bernard Shaw and Thomas Huxley. She was a journalist per excellence. But it was her love for truth that disillusioned her with the established churches, its orthodoxy and dogmas. She was a seeker for the meaning and purpose of the life and her personal tragedies compounded her sense of loss. It was at this time through one of the Founder Members of Sesame Club, Lady Isabelle Margesson that Margaret came in contact with Swami Vivekananda and there was no turning back as she saw nothing but representation of truth in him. She got the meaning and purpose of the life and in Vedanta philosophy she got the intellectual and spiritual needs that she had long sought for.

Responding to Swamiji’s call for working for the upliftment of Indian women Nivedita came to India in January 1898 and got initiated in Brahmacharya in March 1898. But her deep rooted prejudices had prevented her from looking into India as an Indian and it was left to her guru to break her mould and rebuild her. While travelling with Swami Vivekananda, Josephene Mcleod, Sara Chapman Bull and others to North India, she finally found peace in Almora where Swamiji blessed her to lead a new life. She travelled with Swamiji​ to Kashmir and to the caves of Amarnath and the associated experiences deeply transformed her. In November 1898 the school for girls was opened in Baghbazar and it received the blessings of none other than the Sri Sarada Devi. However, she faced threefold difficulty in running her school. 1) The conservative Hindus refused to send their daughters to a school run by an Occidental and she often faced outright hostility while going from door to door to get students for her schools, 2) the few students who joined did not have any fixed schedule and they normally dropped out very soon to get married or for other reasons, 3) the fund situation was getting from bad to worse as she needed to provide free lodging and boarding to the students and most of her students did not pay. She also had to familiarize herself with the Hindu culture and customs and opt for a Hindu way of life to endear herself to the society and students. A great stumbling block was removed when she was accepted with open arms by Holy Mother Sri Sarada Devi and was permitted to stay with her in the same house as a host to other conservative lady devotees. This ensured that soon all inhibitions about her in the conservative society gave way to adoration and respect. In order to communicate with the locals she devoted her time to learn Bengali and took regular classes on Gita and other Indian scriptures from Swami Swarupananda, another brother disciple and erstwhile editor of the “Dawn” magazine.

Meanwhile plague gripped the city and Sister Nivedita as a representative of the newly formed Ramakrishna Mission was at the forefront of the battle. Together with Swami Sadananda, a brother disciple, she cleaned the streets, ensured disposal of garbage, treated and nursed the patients without caring for her own life and encouraged the youth to join the movement. Under her able supervision very soon the menace was tackled and local youths actively participated in the drives for cleanliness and hygiene. She also soon established herself as a credible orator championing Indian customs through her speeches, particularly through “Kali the Mother”, which earned her many admirers and some detractors. She also made herself popular among the Adi Brahmo Samaj members, esp. through her association with Suren Tagore, Sarala Ghoshal and later Rabindranath himself. In June 1899 she set out for the West, together with Swami Vivekananda for collecting funds for the school to give it a permanent foothold. She delivered many lectures on Indian customs and manners and her lucid depiction and explanation of the various symbols, rituals, and nuances of the Indian household revealed her love for India and the depth of her understanding. Any adverse criticism of India was to her a blasphemy and was enough to rouse the lioness in her. In this way, she fought many battles in America in particular, against missionary falsehoods, many superstitions on Indian ways of life and willful portrayal of Indian women in a very poor light, particularly depicting them as ignorant and uneducated. She fought against bad portrayal of the plights of Indian girls in order to garner sympathy for their conversion as was being done by the Ramabai circle. She was vocal about the political situation existing in India, particularly against any sympathy for British rule and apathy towards colonial despotism and forceful subjugation of an entire race.

Even though her fund collection efforts were not successful her lecture tours earned her many new friends, established her reputation as a fine orator and public speaker and went a long way in removing the cultural and racial prejudices. In 1900, she went to Paris as an associate of Sir Patrick Geddes. In 1902, she came back to India and soon afterwards lost her guru. Thereafter her life was one of continuous struggle. Since 1899 she had been friends with Okakura who hailed from from Japan and with whom she shared many as well as varied interests, chiefly in the revival of Asian glory in general and its art in particular. With Sister Christine taking charge of the school and educational​ activities, Sister Nivedita increasingly began to take interest in nationalist activity and established close contact with many political leaders. During this time she also developed a very close and intimate bond with Jagadish Chandra Bose and his wife and they considered her as a part of their own family. She was flabbergasted with the treatment meted out by a hostile and racist British scientific community towards Bose and did her best to help in establishing his pioneering works. She took help from her friends, notably Sarah Bull to provide funds for research work by JC Bose when the government deliberately stalled his work, toiled day in and day out to help him in finishing his research papers while leveraging her superior editorial and writing skills; spent hours together to help him write his book on botany and also helped him in securing a foothold in London when he had none. Without her tireless effort perhaps we could never have seen the best of Jagadish Chandra Bose, a fact that Bose himself admitted candidly several times. She was enthusiastic about Indian science taking its wings and helped several young Indian scientists like Dr Bashiswar (Boshi) Sen. Her relentless fight for the higher educational institution first conceptualized by JN Tata and supported by Swami Vivekananda, is hardly known today. Tata faced a formidable challenge from the British administration in getting the institution run according to the principles laid by him. British wanted to control and in the process destroy the higher education as they had done in case of Calcutta University. It was Nivedita who wrote to many higher authorities in Britain and India, secured support of noted European intellectuals and thereby ensured that the remnants of opposition against the foundation of the great institution was removed. Tata and Swami Vivekananda could not see the fructification of their ideals for developing scientific spirit of India, but Nivedita did live to see her efforts coming true. Thus Indian Institute of Science was born owing to the ardent wish of two great souls and relentless efforts of another.

With the rising tide of Nationalism especially in the wake of the tyrannical and whimsical rule of British India under Lord Curzon, Nivedita was more and more entangled in politics. It was dangerous for her to be in touch with Ramakrishna Mission as the nascent spiritual and welfare organization had come under the scrutiny of the police and was often subjected to harassment in various forms. So publicly she severed her ties and perhaps it was one of the most painful decisions for Ramakrishna Vivekananda’s Nivedita as she made herself known. But behind the scenes she was as involved with Belur Math as ever, still being very intimately associated with the two pillars – Swami Brahmananda, the then President and Swami Saradananda, the secretary, who loved her dearly. Moreover, Swami Sadananda was always there as a guardian angel to help and protect and Holy Mother Sri Sarada Devi could never abandon her “Khuki” for the best or for the worst. During this time the Nationalist fervor had reached its peak which culminated in the break out of the first major Nationalist movement since the mutiny, the Swadeshi, which was triggered by the Partition of Bengal. Nivedita was not idle. She had been touring almost whole of India and working tirelessly to bring all the different factions of Nationalist forces on a common platform, to pursue a common agenda and her main target was the youth whom she roused through her speeches and writings. Her writings were at this time fiery and her tirades received appreciation from all quarters. Her ardent friends were journalists SK Ratcliffe, editor of The Statesman at that time who was sympathetic towards India, Henry Nevinson, another prolific pro India writer and several other dignitaries. Under Ratcliffe’s patronage she took up the pen to expose Curzon. One of the most notable events was Curzon’s speech in a gathering at Calcutta University where he accused the Indians of being liars. The Indians heard the speech but not a single person protested as they were apprehensive of earning the wrath of the establishment. It was therefore left to Nivedita to produce evidence from one of Curzon’s books as to how he had lied to the Korean emperor for gaining favors. Curzon was mocked in his own fraternity for this exposure but this was not the end of the matter. She continued to write against Curzon and his policies, especially​ in matters of higher education for Indians and his derogatory stance against Indians. This was a period of intense turmoil. Through her increasingly aggressive tirades she made herself popular among Nationalist leaders, Aurobindo being one of them. Aurobindo Ghosh made her one of the five members of a council that he established to coordinate amongst various revolutionary activities that had stirred up the nation and to promote self-rule in every sphere, including that of education. She designed the first national flag with thunder or vajra as its emblem, reminding the story of Dadhichi who gave his bones for developing the weapon for destroying the asuras and thus became immortal through his sacrifice. This story reflects on a poignant truth that any great work needs great sacrifice and selflessness as its foundation so that it can be strengthened. Nivedita understood it so well that this became her own symbol and according to her the symbol of Indian life – one of sacrifice and renunciation. The leaders of Congress, both moderates like Surendranath Bannerjee, G K Gokhale and extremists like Bipin Chandra Pal, Bal Gangadhar Tilak, Aurobindo and his brother Barindra, Bhupendranath Datta of Jugantar fame, had very close relationships with Nivedita and often visited her house in Bosepara Lane to plan and strategize. Many young revolutionaries, who were part of secret societies like Anushilon Samity of P Mitra and Mukti Sangha of Hem Chandra Ghosh, were also ardent supporters of Nivedita and she mentored many of them. Brahmabandhab Upadhyay of “Sandhya”, Satish Chandra Mukhopadhyay of “Dawn” and many other noted journalists and reformers were her close friends and fellow workers. She however, did not support some of the unlawful means adopted by some of these organizations, like Swadeshi dacoities. She was in favour of moral superiority and she considered ethical means were the best means towards gaining independence. Any shortcuts on the ideological front were according to her dangerous as it compromised on the ideals of a nationhood based on principles of dharma. She however was a champion of Swadeshi and advocated use of only Swadeshi goods. In her school she promoted Bande Mataram as the choir song, which was an anathema to the British. She helped Rabindranath Tagore in many ways which Tagore himself admitted, although the two could not see eye to eye in all matters. Nivedita was scathing in her repudiation of those whom she considered “soft” towards the British rule. However, she respected them for their qualities and merits, like she ardently helped historian and writer Dinesh Chandra Sen, a long standing friend and admirer, who nevertheless was not supportive of the nationalist movements. Noted Tamil poet and patriot Subramaniam Bharati openly regarded her as his guru as she planted the seeds of love for the nation in him together with removing his especially​ against women. Historian Ramesh Chandra Dutta was her godfather and she was indebted to him for her book, “Footfalls of Indian History”. Despite the tremendous heat of Calcutta, the extreme strain of her work and her constant worries about the finances of the school and educational activities, her writings continued, and several books like “A Web of Indian Life”, “Cradle Tales of Hinduism”, “Kali the Mother”, “My Master As I Saw Him”, “Notes of Some Wanderings” and “Footfalls of Indian History” came out and earned appreciation. Some of them like “Cradle Tales” and “Web of Indian Life” did yeoman service to change the perception of West about Indian culture and customs and enabled them to see the rich traditions where their scholars had only seen horrible superstition and primitive customs. She extensively wrote in many contemporary magazines like “Modern Review” of Ramananda Chattopadhyay who was a great friend and admirer.

The strain of the tremendous work, the inclement weather and complete self-abnegation broke her health and it took her time to recover. But she never lost her spirit. She attended Congress sessions and wanted Congress to stay united but unfortunately its split was unavoidable owing to differences between moderates and extremists. At this time Nivedita was under danger of being arrested by police but providence again favoured her. Lady Minto developed a very strong bond with her and even went to her house and visited Dakshineswar Temple together with her. This association and the more benign rule of Lord Minto brought some change in attitude in the higher orders of the bureaucracy. After recovery Nivedita continued her Nationalist activities with renewed vigour. She helped Aurobindo Ghosh escape to Chandannagar to evade arrest and continued in his absence to edit “Karam Yogin” and “Dharma”, the two nationalist papers edited by Aurobindo, to provide a subterfuge. She helped to secure the bond for Bhupendranath when he was arrested. She also helped several noted revolutionaries escape India and settle in the America. All these put her in real danger of being herself arrested and in 1906 she left India under advice of some of her friends in the Government and settled in England. But this retreat did not diminish the intensity of her zeal to work for India and she increased her effort to gain support for India in the intellectual societies of Britain and America through her public lectures. Any session of India in House of Commons would invariably demand her presence to participate in the debate and the discussions and thanks to her persistent efforts India gained many friends and sympathizers among educated British.

After coming back to India she immersed herself in work to secure funds for her major work, that of educating Indian women. She had also done great service in the field of art. So far Indian art was held contemptuously by the colonial masters and their pet scholars like Fergusson. They regarded every art form of India as not indigenous but borrowed from European cultures and art forms like that of Greece and Rome. Some of the Indian artists like Raja Ravi Varma toed their lines and forsook the Indian traditional style. Nivedita, who was an ardent lover of art took it on her own shoulder to rejuvenate Indian art. She found enthusiastic support among noted artist EB Havell and pioneers like Anand Kumaraswamy. She brought along Abanindranath Tagore and his students like Nandalal Bose, Asit Kumar Haldar and several others to study and develop the Indian art form. She sent Nandalal and Asit Haldar to study the arts in Ajanta and Ellora caves. Together, they revitalized the Indian art and developed interest among artists to follow the new found school of art rather than imitating the Europeans. Her efforts received support from Sir John Woodroffe, another Westerner who loved India and Hinduism. The result was revolution in Indian art. The renewed interest and vigour produced many well-known artists all over India in the later periods whose art belonged to the intrinsic Indian school of art.

Nivedita’s contribution towards the rejuvenation and resurrection of an independent, progressive and self-confident India has been grossly underestimated. It was she who was one of the first to sow such seeds that sprouted later when the environment and soil became favourable. She herself gave up everything to follow her principles and ideals and hence her life was a shining beacon to those who followed her. It is thus only befitting that today we remember her and reevaluate and recognize those contributions; else we’ll be held guilty forever in the eyes of the posterity.

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  1. Sushanta Dutta May 13, 2017

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