It is indeed a strange phenomenon that sometimes there occur such momentous events in the life of a person that it turns life upside down to plunge that person headlong in the vortex of a completely unexpected whirlpool. This is part of the process of evolution because nature and history play similar roles albeit in different capacities, the former on an individual while the latter on societies and nations which are collective of individuals. Therefore momentous events in the life of a single person may in turn contribute towards a large scale transformation of a nation and society as nature and history are interdependent to bring about such transformations.
It is imperative for us to know the contributions of those who had been working silently in the background, without expecting any reward, recognition, name or fame towards upliftment of humanity, to lift us straight from the abyss of degradation and put us gently on the path to enlightenment and self-respect. A tremendous work that had been done in the past century was in education of women in India, esp. to bring to them the light of modern progressive secular education without any commensurate agenda of social and religious reforms or conversion. There had been many selfless and dedicated workers who had worked towards this cause, otherwise moving such a gigantic wheel of social resistance and bringing lights in the lives of those who deserved it, would not have happened. Here we are going to narrate the story of one such person of a frail form, who came from a far off land, being called by her inner spirit, and took up the challenge of moving a spoke of the gigantic wheel through her sheer will force, against all odds. Incidentally this year also marks her 150th birth anniversary. She was Sister Christine, or Christine Greenstidel, spiritual daughter of Swami Vivekananda, who along with Sister Nivedita, played a pioneering role in woman’s education in Kolkata in the early 1900 by her active association with and development of the girl’s school in Baghbazar.
Christine or Christina as she was better known as, was the daughter of a German immigrant from Nuremberg who came and settled in the Detroit area of America in 1860s. Christine was only three years old then. She had a happy childhood. Her father was a religious preacher but was liberal and progressive in outlook and that possibly formed an indelible impression on Christine, to help shape her later life. She lost her father, the sole bread earner of the family when she was only seventeen. And from then on, a life of continuous hardship and battles awaited her. Though weak in body, Christine, nevertheless had a very strong will and indomitable spirit. Her immense strength of will showed her the way amidst the turbulences of life. Being the elder among her seven siblings, she took up the responsibility of bringing them up along with her mother who looked after the household chores. She took up the position of a teacher in Detroit Public Schools. It was a job with a meagre salary, so struggles did not ease, but somehow they pulled through.
It was probably at this stage Christine wanted to learn something about the mysteries of life. Though coming from orthodox background the dogmatisms of traditional religious thoughts did not appeal to her inquisitive mind. Therefore she looked up to various “new age” doctrines that had appeared in Americas during the late 1870s and 1880s – Christian Science of Mary Baker Eddy being one of them. It took a lot of courage at that time to swim against the tide, the conventional and orthodox, esp. for a lady from a not so well off family. In order to discover something new and hoping to find the meaning of life she kept on attending lectures, esp. if there were any interesting persons delivering on unorthodox subjects. But so far life was dull. This period is described in her memoir, in her own poetic words – There are times when life flows on in a steady deadly stream of monotony. Eating, sleeping, talking — the same weary round. Commonplace thoughts, stereotyped ideas, the eternal tread-mill. Tragedy comes. For a moment it shocks us into stillness. But we cannot keep still. The merry-go-round stops neither for our sorrow nor our happiness. Surely this is not all there is to life. This is not what we are here for. Restlessness comes. What are we waiting for? Then one day it happens, the stupendous things for which we have been waiting — that which dispels the deadly monotony, which turns the whole of life into a new channel, which eventually takes one to a far away country and sets one among strange people with different customs and a different outlook upon life, to a people with whom from the very first we feel a strange kinship, a wonderful people who know what they are waiting for, who recognize the purpose of life. Our restlessness is stilled forever.
However the momentous, life changing event came a few years later. This was probably what she had been expecting her whole life. When it came, it was so sudden and unexpected that she herself did not realize it at first and when the first wave subsided, she began to feel the effects. It was the visit of a Hindu monk from faraway land of India to Detroit in February 1894, that became the focal point of attention. For one, the visit generated much interest in the local newspapers like Detroit Free Press and Tribune, and for the other, the monk was venerated among the elite social circle and almost all prominent figures of Detroit. Swami Vivekananda, after his success in parliament of religions, was almost of household name, esp. among the knowledge and the spiritual seekers as well as the elites of the society. The first lecture that Christine went to attend with her friend and close associate Mary Funke, became the harbinger of her new life. With much apprehension she had gone to the Unitarian Church, expecting another disappointment. But, later as she recounted, “Surely never in our countless incarnations had we taken a step so momentous! For before we had listened five minutes, we knew that we had found the touchstone for which we had searched so long. In one breath, we exclaimed — “If we had missed this… !”
The die was cast. She and her friend listened to all the eight public lectures that Swamiji gave during that stay in February and after he came back in March again. But she could not muster enough courage to meet him. So a year went by, glimpses of truth having been received but not acted upon. It was as if a poor in the search of gold had stumbled upon philosopher’s stone but did not know yet as to how to use it to change her life. But the chance came again, after one year. She heard that the master was in a place called Thousand Island Park on the bank of St. Lawren’s River and she and her friend Mrs. Funke took the decision to travelling that long distance to meet him. What followed essentially was a fairy tale story. On a dark rainy night the two friends arrived in a village near the hilly terrain where Ms. Dutcher had her cottage. This was the place used by Swami Vivekananda to teach intimately twelve of his American disciples. The next few weeks were surreal and sublime experience for her as the Swami was at his best in Thousand Islands, always remaining in lofty plane of consciousness and elevating others by his divine oratory. After Thousand Island Park, Swami Vivekananda stayed in touch with Christine and his letters to her were always warm and affectionate, symbolizing the real father daughter relationship. By then she had definitely got a glimpse of the reality beyond the mundane which was to propel her. In Thousand Island Park she was one of the fortunate few to receive formal initiation from him.
His letters to her were always gentle and caring, there was no rebuke for Christine, only benediction. “ I send my love everyday to you, however…Purity, patience and perseverance overcome all….May the blessings of the Lord be ever and ever on you dear Christina and may your path in life be one of peace and purity..” Swamiji also wrote the beautiful poem “To an early Violet” and sent to Christine. With a prophetic vision he must had seen what was going to be the course of her life and prepared her for it through that poem. The last few lines read,
Change not thy nature, gentle bloom
Thou violet, sweet and pure,
But ever pure thy sweet perfume
Unasked, unstinted sure!
He was to send her several more poems later, all with the same theme – strength and courage in the face of adversities. Life was harsh for Christine, it was harsh before she met Swami Vivekananda, and it remained harsh for her throughout her life. She also suffered from depression and Swamiji knew of that. He therefore said, “Cheer up Christina, this world has no time for despondence, none for weakness. “ Yet she never deviated from her lofty ideals, her loyalty towards her guru and spiritual father. She was gentle, all suffering, but never weak. She was ready to devote her life to a cause, in a country that she had never seen but of which she heard a lot from him.
After Swamiji returned to India, letters were the only means of communication between the father daughter duo and yet, Christine was sometimes very reserved. The father, being afraid that the daughter might be ill, advises her in a sweet letter to take rest as she would need it badly. He also gives her hope that he may be able to visit America but won’t be able to do so much work as his health is broken. He had already suggested her to work in India and now he wanted her to come. The only obstacles were her obligation to her family, her mother and siblings who were dependent on her. It was a time of despair and Swamiji’s letters conveyed unstinted support and encouragement to face the life’s vicissitudes with even mindedness, like a true Vedantin. He cautions her against her sacrificing attitude, to work and wear herself out and says, “Do not work yourself out. It is no use, always remember-‘Duty is the midday sun whose fierce rays are burning the very vitals of humanity.’ It is necessary for a time as a discipline, beyond that it is a morbid dream.” He also cautions her against egoistic work, “Things go on alright whether we lend them our helping hand or not.” And then the tenderly father advises in a following letter, “Take the greatest care of health dear Christina, and do not worry about anything. It is worry that kills mankind, nothing else. Write to me whenever you can and whatever you can pen.” He was concerned about her managing family affairs with her meagre resources and ready to help there, even though he himself was a penniless monk. There were more than one occasions when perhaps he sent financial help to her to take care of family needs and wants. “How do you manage the family, the expenses etc. Write to me whatever you would like to write….Give me a long chat…” On her part Christine was also worried about Swamiji’s failing health and the fear that she would not be able to see him anymore. Swamiji then consoled her, ‘Whatever happens or will happen is under Her (the Divine Mother) ordination.” His letters were meant to help her, to tide over her difficult domestic situation. He also freely unburdened his own woes to her, something he never did even with his closest disciples and brothers.
Atlast Christine had made up her mind to come to India. Swamji slowly prepared her for the harsh realities, to wake her up from the romantic notions about India. “The Indian summer will not suit you, “ he writes, “three fourth of the population only wearing a strip of white cloth around their loins, can you bear that.” Atlast he says, “Mother knows best, I dedicate you to Her forever…” And Christine’s destiny was decided. During his second visit to London in 1899, she stayed for a while with him along with Mrs. Funke and Sister Nivedita and then they together took the ferry to cross Atlantic. Those ten days were very memorable to her because she got her guru and father most closely and intimately. According to the reminiscences of Mrs. Funke, “Reading and exposition of Gita occupied every morning and also reciting and translating poems from Sanskrit and chanting old Vedic hymns.” Also Vivekananda now and then lifted their minds from the existential and sensory to the transcendental, “And if all these Maya is beautiful, “ said he by pointing to a wonderful moonlit night in a calm ocean, “think of the wondrous beauty of the Reality behind it.” In 1900, he even stayed with her in her mother’s home in Detroit for five days. Those most intimate days revealed another aspect of Swamiji to Christine, his real aspect which was hidden from her. She saw his love and compassion for the poor and the down trodden. She later wrote in her reminiscences, “In New York once there was a pitiful little group that clung to him with pathetic tenacity.” In the course of a walk he had gathered them up. She wondered, why does he attract such queer, abnormal people, and then as if reading her mind, Swamiji answered, “You see, they are Siva’s demons.” She could also recognize the genuine pathos and compassion is his voice when he said to her about two aged forlorn creatures walking in front, ”Don’t you see, life has conquered them.”
He wrote perhaps one of his most moving letters from Paris, written entirely in French to her. There he showers her with benediction, expresses his hope that sufferings are drawing to an end, for both him and his daughter, that he is free once again, after having relinquishing all duties formally and tribulations will pave the way for a better and brighter future (in the spiritual sense of course). He always tried to rouse her from her slumber and constantly reminded her of her call from beyond.
Her mother passed away and her family obligations eased. Christine was free to carry out her Guru’s plans. And he assented to her travels and arranged for the same. It was the summer of 1902 when Christine came to India. She met his guru in Belur Math and then, by Swamiji’s arrangement went to the hills in Almora. And there she heard the news of his passing away. But then she recovered quickly from the shock and set to carry out the tasks that rested on her shoulder. She took charge of the girl’s school along with Sister Nivedita and they stayed in the same house in Bose para lane in Baghbazar. The girl’s school was Swamiji’s dream as he firmly believed in education of masses and empowerment of women through education. He was extremely sad about the state of affairs of women in India and thought that it would be best to let them solve their problems, after educating and empowering them sufficiently. This he entrusted on his two most beloved daughters, Nivedita and Christine. While Sister Nivedita, still working at the girl’s school and doing her utmost to raise funds, got involved more and more in the rising tidal wave of Indian nationalism , which she did her best to raise, it was left to a persevering Christine to carry out the day to day activities of the school.
The task was not easy during those days. In the first place there was the usual social stigma attached to foreigners, that they were not welcome in any conservative and orthodox Hindu family. In the second, education of girls of the household was considered a fanciful step, reserved only for the unorthodox. But Christine, despite her frail stature, had a dogged determination. Besides, carrying out her Guru’s wishes was her tapasya and her mental strength was almost superhuman. To encourage women to be financially independent she taught them sewing. She herself learnt sewing from a tailor and teaching all these, besides regular education was very demanding on her. Sometimes she despaired very much. Yet she carried on with a zeal when she saw the enthusiasm with which her students responded and the amount of love she had from them in return for her selfless work. They used to call her “Moon Didi”, perhaps because of her gentle and sublime nature. Nivedita and Christine taught the children learning, drawing, clay modelling, mat weaving, sewing, besides history, geography, Bengali, English and Mathematics, running it in a kindergarten model. Generous help and support came from Ramakrishna Mission monks, esp. Swami Saradananda and Swami Brahmananda. The school had blessings of none other than the Holy mother Sarada Devi herself who also had great affection from Christine, her “Krishna Mata”, and her constant companions like Yogin Ma. Swami Vivekananda’s friends Josephine Macleod and Sara bull helped and supported when the going got tough. His disciple Swami Sadananda was a staunch protector. Yet, the school literally operated from hand to mouth. Girls from poor families had no means to pay. But the sisters were amazed to see the eagerness of their students to learn. And many students came out from the school who later helped keeping the banner flying high. Despite the odds stacked heavily against because of conservative Hindu’s refusal to educate their girls, the number of students who joined the school were beyond all expectations. Widows and adults also joined the school to learn new things esp. after the efforts of Nivedita to enact religious dramas and other events in which the ladies of the household participated. The school slowly prospered. In order to mix well with her students Christine learnt Bengali and would speak fluent Bengali. One of the greatest contributions of the school was that unlike missionary schools, it respected the prevailing culture, custom and religious norms and operated well within the boundaries of traditional Hinduism. That was why people soon accepted the school and students kept coming. Sister Christine was almost caring as mother to the students. She treated every student as her own child. However the tremendous strain, the hot weather and the lack of financial resources caused great hardship which she silently bore. Moreover she had the whole responsibility of administration alone as sister Nivedita was busy with her lectures and writings. The house in which they lived, 17 Bosepara Lane was a veritable mart for the visit of Who’s Who of India. Rabindranath Tagore, Gopalkrishna Gokhale and other Congress Leaders, both moderates an extremists, Jagadish Chandra Bose, S. K Ratcliffe, the editor of Statesman, many revolutionaries belonging to Anushilon Samity, leading artists and historians like Anand Kumaraswami, Okakura and Ramesh Chandra Dutta. But Sister Christine was entirely dedicated to the welfare of the school and the girls, oblivious of the Nationalist activities around her. And yet she was supportive of India’s freedom. Years later, when a student one day trampled her foot deliberately in a tramcar in Calcutta, she seemed to have cheerfully remarked that that was the sign of India waking, which was Swamiji’s dream. The school fund situation worsened and sometimes they had to close the school for lack of funds. The struggles were immense but they never gave up hope. The school was a success as it was major pioneer in terms of delivering value based education to women, opening up new horizons for them and developing their character, something which was Swamiji’s cherished desire.
In 1911 the school received a major blow as Sister Nivedita passed away in Darjeeling. Christine was crestfallen, but she carried on the battle with the help of Sister Sudhira. However her frail health soon gave way and she had to travel back to America in 1914 to recover. And then the war broke out and Christne, a German by birth, was not allowed to travel back to India. For ten long years she remained separated from her beloved school and over a letter she had relinquished the entire duty to Sister Sudhira, who was also an able administrator. Her letter to Sudhira read, “This is your work and you are free…we must produce a few women of unusual intellect and spiritual power who will combine the best and noblest of East and West without the faults of either…” During this period she remained in Detroit and New York and often lectured on Vedanta which drew a lot of praises. She gathered round her a devoted group of students in Detroit as she lectured on different aspects of Indian history, culture and philosophy. But she was always in abject poverty, living the life of a sannyasini, practicing austerities to the utmost.
In 1924 when she finally came back to India, situations had changed a lot. The school had now a different management and because of the poor health condition of Christine her application to work in the school she had set up was rejected. She had nowhere to live as her old accommodation was in a dilapidated state. At this stage help came unexpectedly and it seemed that Swamiji never forgot to take care of his beloved daughter. The hardest of trials and sufferings were reserved for her but in her own words in her later days, “Would I have had it different? No, a thousand times no. It is seldom that Vivekananda comes to this earth. If I am to be born again, gladly will I endure a thousand times the hardships of this life for the privilege that has been mine.” Her last six years were spent with Dr. Boshiswar Sen, who later became a leading Indian scientist, and Gertrude Sen, his American wife. She lived with him first in Baghbazar and then in Almora. When her health deteriorated further, Boshi Sen took her to America and she spent her last few months in a nursing home of a friend in New York where she received good care. Many a devoted friends came to visit her and make her last days joyful. She passed away in peace in March 1930 thus ending a life of great sacrifice.
Reminiscences of Swami Vivekanananda, by Sister Christine, Advaita Ashrama
A Portrait of Sister Christine, by Pravrajika Vrajaprana, Vedanta Press