Sister Nivedita: A multi-dimensional personality

published on October 21, 2010

V.N. Gopalakrishnan

Sister Nivedita (1867-1911) was a disciple of Swami Vivekananda and her contribution to the promotion of national consciousness is immeasurable. She was a person of intense spirituality, strength of mind and intellectual power. Yet she led a simple and austere life dedicated to the cause of India and Hinduism. She was an image of purity and austerity in her simple white gown and with a rosary of rudraksha around her neck.

As her birthday falls on October 28, the nation pays tribute to a champion of Indian Freedom and emancipation of Indian women. Sister Nivedita’s life and works are of great importance to the people of India. She has left behind a lasting impression and her multi-dimensional personality has helped in inspiring some of the progressive movements that led to India’s freedom. Sister Nivedita was described as `a real lioness’ by Swami Vivekananda, Lokmata (the mother of the people) by Rabindranath Tagore and Agnisikha (the flame of fire) by Aurobindo Ghose. In England, she was known as The Champion for India, but she was a ‘Sister’ to the people of India. Her entire thought and consciousness was focussed on India alone.

Margaret Elizabeth Noble alias Sister Nivedita was born on October 28, 1867 at Dunganon in Ireland as the daughter of Mary Isabel and Samuel Richmond Noble. Her father taught her that service to mankind was the true service to God and his words made an impression on her mind. At an early age, she had the realization that, religion is not about having belief in the doctrines, but is about searching for the divine light that will bring enlightenment.  After completing her education, she took up teaching and worked for ten years from 1884 to 1894. She also started taking interest in Buddhist principles.

Swami Vivekananda had risen to fame through his performance at the World Parliament of Religions in 1895. A disciple of Sri Ramakrishna Paramahamsa, he was one of the first Indian Gurus to travel to the West and spread the ancient teachings of Vedanta. Though Christian religious doctrines were instilled into Miss Margaret Noble from childhood, the search for ‘Truth’ led her to Swami Vivekananda’s teachings. She came across Swami Vivekananda in London and in response to his call, she came to Kolkata on January 28, 1898 and was initiated into the monastic order of Ramakrishna Mission in the same year. It was Swami Vivekananda, who called her by the name ‘Nivedita’ which refers to someone who is highly dedicated to the Almighty God.

Sister Nivedita opened a kindergarten school for Hindu girls in November 1989; joined plague relief works of the Ramakrishna Mission from March 1899; left for the West in July to collect funds for her school; formed ‘The Ramakrishna Guild of Help’ in America; went to Paris in July 1900, where Swami Vivekananda attended the Congress of the History of Religions; left for England in September 1900; and returned to India in February 1902.

Sister Nivedita’s interest in the Indian struggle for Independence prompted her to resign from the purely spiritual Ramakrishna Order after Vivekananda’s death in July 1902, although she maintained close relations with the Order and Sri Sarada Devi, the Holy Mother. Later she adored and worshipped Sri Ramakrishna Paramahamsa, Goddess Kali and Lord Shiva.

Swami Vivekanand’s principles and teachings had an indelible imprint on her mind and this brought about a major change in her. She left all the things that she could have boasted of and decided to lead a very simplistic life. Seeing the passion in her to transform the society, Swamiji could foresee her futuristic role as Mother India. She had good relations with many intellectuals of the time including Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore, eminent scientist Jagadish Chandra Bose and Abanindranath Tagore. She also came into contact with some of the influential figures in the independence movement including Gopal Krishna Gokhale, Sri Aurobindo Ghose, Bepin Chandra Pal, Mahatma Gandhi and young revolutionaries like Taraknath Das. She was admired for her work by distinguished persons like Lady Minto and Ramsay Macdonald.

After the demise of Vivekananda, Sister Nivedita became increasingly committed to work for Indian independence and in the process risked arrest frequently. Her home became a meeting place for writers, intellectuals and politicians. She also worked tirelessly for the amelioration of the plight of Indian women. She sought to improve women’s education, especially for Hindu widows who were often condemned to a life of poverty. When the plague struck Kolkatta in March 1898, she joined plague relief works of the Ramakrishna Mission and formed ‘The Ramakrishna Guild of Help’ in America. During the devastating floods in East Bengal resulting in famine, she organized relief funds for the affected villages.

Sister Nivedita wrote profusely on many facets of Indian culture, philosophy, art and history in journals like the Review of Reviews, the Prabuddha Bharata, the Modern Review, etc. under the byline `Nivedita of Ramakrishna-Vivekananda’. She promoted pan-Indian nationalist views both in her writings and in public meetings. From 1902 onwards, she spoke and wrote against the British policy in India. She attacked Lord Curzon for the Universities Act of 1904, for his insulting the Indians by calling them untruthful in his Convocation Address in 1905, and for the Partition of Bengal in 1905. Her literary works include: Kali the Mother, The Web of Indian Life, Cradle Tales of Hinduism, An Indian study of love and death, Select Essays of Sister Nivedita, Studies from an Eastern Home, Myths of Hindus and Buddhists, Footfalls of Indian history, Religion and Dharma, Civic & National ideals and Complete Works of Sister Nivedita.

On October 13, 1911 at the young age of 44 years, Nivedita attained eternal rest amidst the snowy peaks of Darjeeling. In a sylvan shrine ensconced in the lap of the Himalayas where silence reigns supreme, stands a memorial which proclaims, “Here reposes Sister Nivedita who gave her all to India”.

(The author is a freelance journalist and social activist. He is Director, Indo-Gulf Consulting and can be contacted on [email protected]).

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