Sister Nivedita: A biography of Swami Vivekananda’s student
Young Margaret Nobel came under the spell of Swami Vivekananda. She came from distant Ireland to India to serve the people of this land. She was given the name of ‘Nivedita’ as one dedicated to God. She became a teacher to little children and their mothers. When plague or famine or flood-ravaged the land she became the very personification of compassion and service.
Nivedita is the deathless symbol of sacrifice and service.
At a time when this land of ours was beset with troubles, quite a number of people of the west came of their own free will to help us. One of these was Miss Margaret Nobel, popularly known as Nivedita, who came to India from Ireland.
In those days Ireland, like India, was a country fighting for her freedom. John Noble was the priest of an Irish Church. Nearer to his heart than all else was his God and his motherland. His son Samuel Nobel, who was also a priest, married a lovely young lady, Mary Hamilton. It was of these parents that Margaret, who later became Nivedita, was born on October 28, 1867.
From her grandfather, Margaret inherited measureless courage and boundless patriotism, while from her father she inherited tremendous compassion for the poor. And from her mother, she inherited not only her great beauty but her tenderness and sympathy.
Margaret often went with her grandfather and her father to the homes and novels of the poor and joined them in rendering service to them. Thus, even from her earliest years, service became her constant companion.
One day a certain friend of Margaret’s father paid a visit to the family. He, too, was a preacher and had returned home after having served in India as a priest. He felt drawn to little Margaret whose mind was as keen as her figure was beautiful. When he said good-bye, he told his little friend, “India, my little one, is seeking her destiny. She called me once, and will perhaps call you, too, someday.
”When The Call Comes”
Samuel’s work was toilsome but his income meager. Even out of his slender means he gave away his utmost to the less fortunate among his flock. Overwork and care undermined his health.
Samuel was just thirty-four when death claimed his precious life. At the last moment, he called his devoted wife and whispered in her ears,
“When the call comes from Heaven, let Margaret go. The little one will reveal her talents and do great things.”
Soon after her husband’s death, Mary went with her children to her parental home in Ireland. Her old parents gave all their affection to their orphan grandchildren yet brought them up under strict discipline.
Some years passed. The grandparents sent Margaret and her sister to the Halifax Colette, where the two girls were resident boarders of the college hostel. Discipline was the watchword of the place. Life there was all discipline – rigid, severe discipline. But the sisters loved their studies. Margaret grew fond of music and art. She took a keen interest in biology.
“Always be ready for her call .” These stirring words thrilled the little girl’s heart and lighted up her eyes.
As a Teacher
1884, Margaret was now seventeen, a beautiful young woman, with charming manners and a dignified bearing. Her education was over. She yearned to teach little children. She easily got a teacher’s post at Keswick. Filled with joy she entered upon life, beginning as a small teacher, only to become a great teacher.
To teach tiny tots is no easy task, as children are fond of play. They must be made to learn even as they are playing. Margaret felt drawn to this challenging task. She tried several experiments to make her teaching not only successful but interesting. In 1892 she started popularly. People got to know that Margaret was a brilliant teacher.
A Welsh youth, who was an engineer, was attracted by Margaret. Their friendship, growing more and more intimate, finally turned into love. They became engaged. Unfortunately, the young man became bed-ridden with a serious illness, which soon took his life. Margaret was plunged in grief. Yet she bore it up bravely by applying herself more and more to her school-work and her studies.
Finding the Guru
1895 the momentous year that changed the very course of Margaret’s life.
Lady Isabel Margesson, a friend of Margaret, invited her to her home to meet an Indian monk on the following Sunday. Margaret has described her experience on the occasion. A majestic personage, clad in a saffron gown and wearing a red waist-band, sat there on the floor, cross-legged. As he spoke to the company, he recited Sanskrit verses in his deep, sonorous voice. His serene face, his dignified bearing, and his divine voice cast a spell upon the listeners, who felt electrified by his frequent utterance of the name of “Siva, Siva!” Margaret, however, who had already delved deep into the sacred lore of the East, found nothing quite new in what she heard on this occasion. What was new to her was the personality of the Swamiji himself.
Margaret found out that this rare Swamiji with his magnetic personality was none other than Swami Vivekananda who, two years before in 1893, had attended, uninvited, the Parliament of Religions held at Chicago. His inspiring address at the Parliament had captured millions of American hearts.
Margaret at first remarked that there was nothing new in what the Swamiji had said. But in her own heart of hearts, she knew that it was not so. The sayings of the Swamiji kept returning to her mind and haunted her. “God alone is the truth,” he had asserted. This assertion might not be new, but the Swamiji’s conviction was indeed quite new. And he had made another assertion:
“Every religion is a highway to God.” And the radiance of his personality! There seemed to be a veritable halo about him. He had given up everything for god. His sayings were not mere repetitions from books. They were living words, which sprang from the depths of his soul, charged with the Truth he had seen and experienced.
Margaret came more and more under the spell of Swami Vivekananda. Now like a thunderbolt blasting its way along and burning up centuries of superstition, and now like a chisel chipping away at the ages-old darkness of ignorance; now like the mantras of a great guru awakening the soul of his disciple from its sloth and torpor, and now the mystic sayings of a realized souls sweeping away all the doubts of his disciple.
Now like the sincere, frank advice of a devoted comrade and now like the tender comfort of an affectionate mother, Swamiji’s galvanizing words welled up from the depths of his soul. It was his flaming virtue, the glowing purity of his spirit, that had captured her heart and turned her into a servant of his country for his sake, she wrote later.
One day, in midst of his discourse, Swamiji said in a thundering voice: “What the world needs to-day is twenty men and women who dare stand in the public street and declare that they have nothing to call their own except the God. Who is there among you that can say so?” Margaret’s heart seemed to whisper, ‘Here I am! But her tongue was yet too timid to utter those words. One day, speaking about the woman of India, Swamiji said, “Our girls over there have not even seen the face of a school.
That land of ours cannot advance unless they are educated.” Then, turning at once towards Margaret, he said, “I have certain plans relating to the education and the welfare of the women of my country. I believe that you can be of great service to me in translating them into reality.” Margaret felt overwhelmed by the Swamiji’s faith in her. Yet she had misgivings whether she was equal to such a mighty task. Sensing her mind, the Swamiji reassured her: “You have the making in you of a world-mover, and others will also come…Awake, awake, great one!” Margaret took the heroic resolve to leave her own dear homeland and make the Swamiji’s far-off homeland her own, and render her utmost service there.
Teaching, reading, discussion everything had now lost its interest for Margaret. The Swamiji’s voice was always ringing in her ears. It seemed to her that India was calling her, unceasingly, insistently. She felt that it was darkness all around and only in the east there was a streak of light.
And that streak of light seemed to be reaching out to her and beckoning her. “Your place is there in India,” the Swamiji had said, “but that can be only when you are ready.” But was it so easy to make herself ready? The Swamiji himself had graphically spoken of India to her. He had made her see India in all her squalor. Poverty, ignorance, jealousy, filth – these had free play everywhere in that country. The British would look down upon her. The Indians would treat her with suspicion and dislike; they were people who treated their own fellow countrymen as untouchables. It was to serve the women and educate the girls of such a country that Margaret was being called. And they were women, so conservative, so narrow-minded, that they would not let her even cross their orthodox thresholds. As for education, would they ever allow their precious daughters to be taught by a woman of an alien faith?
It was at such a moment of doubt that she received from the Master this heartening message: “It is not a man we need but a woman; a real lioness, to work for the Indians, women especially…
“India cannot yet produce great women, she must borrow them from other nations. Your education, sincerity, purity, immense love, determination, and above all, the Celtic blood, make you just the woman India needs.
“You must think well before you plunge in, and after all you toil, if you fail in this or get disgusted, on my part I promise you I will stand by you whether you work for India or not, whether you give up Vedanta or remain in it. ‘The tusks of the elephant come out but never go back’; so are the words of a man never retracted.”
On Indian Soil
The boat bringing Margaret to India reached Calcutta on January 28, 1898. Swami Vivekananda came in person to the port to give an affectionate welcome to her. She soon familiarized herself with the city where she had to work and started making the acquaintance of the people among whom she had to live. And she lost no time in learning Bengali, and studying Bengali Literature; for command of Bengali was essential for her to communicate with, and ultimately win the confidence and affection of, the people around her.
A few weeks later, two of Swami Vivekananda’s women disciples in America, Mrs. Sasrah C. Bul, and Miss Josphine Mac Leod arrived in India.
The three soon became fast friends.
Their cottage became an ashram. Everyday Swami Vivekananda came there, either with some of his brother monks or alone. The moment he entered, the place became charged with a Holy Spirit. The inspired Master addressed the disciples for hours. His theme was India, her history, her saints, her heroes and heroines, her epics, her Puranas, her poets, architects, sculptors, and other artists, and above all, her great sages. Under the Swamiji’s spell, the listeners forgot the world, forgot themselves, and, as they listened, they relived those glorious ages.
One day, Miss Mac Leod asked: “Swamiji how can I best serve you?”
At once came the reply,
“Love India, serve her, worship her. That is prayer, that is worship, that is everything.”
Margaret took the Swamiji’s answer as his message for her too.
Sri Ramakrishna Paramahamsa, the god-man of Dakshineswar, was the Guru of Swami Vivekananda. He had passed away in 1886. His saintly wife, Sri Sharada Devi, whom all the Paramahamsa’s devotees revered as the Holy Mother, blessed them all and inspired them to noble endeavor and heroic achievement.
Margaret had an irresistible longing to meet the Holy Mother. But she had her own apprehensions. Would the Mother, who had been brought up in the traditions of Hindu orthodoxy, receive her and her comrades who were not only foreigners but Miechchas, or members of an alien faith? But Sri Sharada Devi was the very embodiment of love and scantily, she received Margaret, Sarah Bull, and Macleod as her own children.
The 25th of March 1898 was for Margaret the holiest and most unforgettable day of her life.
That was the day on which her Guru dedicated her to God and to the service of India.
It was a Friday. Swami Vivekananda took all three of them to the Math, Leading Margaret into the shrine, he taught her how to worship Lord Shiva according to the prescribed ritual.
He then asked her to offer worship, unaided.
To be invested by the Master himself with the authority to perform the rites of worship was a unique privilege, a matchless blessing. Margaret was in ecstasy. The Swamiji then initiated her ceremonially into the order of celibacy. He gave her the name of ‘Nivedita’, which means ‘the Dedicated One’. He commanded her to place lotus flowers at the feet of Lord Buddha. Then, in a tremulous voice, he gave her his benediction and message: “Go thou, my child, go. Tread thou the path shown by that Great Soul who was the very embodiment of compassion and sacrificed himself for others in five hundred lives before he attained the status of the Buddha.” During that summer the Swamiji started for Almora in the Himalayas, taking with him Nivedita and other disciples. During the journey the party looked like a moving Gurukula; for it was a regular cycle of instruction, discourse, and meditation, right through.
The School – An Experiment On November 13, 1898, Nivedita started her school in a small way in a rented cottage.
The very personality of Nivedita commanded respect. Her stately, handsome figure, dressed in a long, flowing, snow-white gown, held firm with a silk waistband lent her a certain majesty which heightened her natural dignity and grace.
The rudraksha rosary around her neck gave her a saintly look. It is recorded that whenever Nivedita came to address a gathering, people spontaneously rose to their feet and gave her a standing ovation.
The school was no doubt started, but the problem for Nivedita was to find pupils. She went from door to door and had long arguments with parents to overcome their prejudices against sending their girls to school. “Putting girls to school? What an ideal!” exclaimed the shocked parents. A good many openly jeered at her. Nothing daunted, Nivedita persisted in her search and succeeded at last in roping in a few girls of varying ages. She taught them to read and write and instructed them in drawing, painting, and clay modeling.
Nivedita loved all the people around her sincerely and deeply. Their resistance was soon broken and they welcomed her into their hearts and into their homes. Moving about freely among these households, she gradually became a member of their families. To everyone in north Calcutta, she became Sister Nivedita.
Once an unfortunate mother came running to Nivedita, sobbing bitterly; and dragging her by the hand, she cried frantically, “Come, sister, hurry at once. My last child is dying even now!” Nivedita ran to the place, led by the poor mother.
But even as they were entering the house, the child breathed its last. The unhappy mother held the baby to her breast and wailed aloud for hours. And, at last, she folded Nivedita to her bosom and cried, “O sister! What shall I do? Where is my darling gone?” And in her tender accents, Nivedita consoled the mother, saying, “Hush, mother. Your child is with the Great Mother: She is with Kali!”
When Nivedita reported this incident to the Master, he gave her a new and inspiring message:
“Worship even death, Nivedita, worship the terrible, even as you would worship the beautiful!” Nivedita took the Master’s message to heart.
She now realized that death was but the other face of life. And this new realization of hers was soon put to the test.
Plague in Calcutta
In March 1899 a devastating plague broke out in Calcutta and spread like wildfire all over the city. The fell disease took a toll on hundreds of lives every day. Deeply distressed, Nivedita plunged into action in order to save the city from the grip of the dire menace. She started sweeping the streets and cleaning the drains. Bengali youths, unused to any kind of manual labor, and accustomed to look upon scavenging as dirty work, just sat and watched for a while, though they felt guilty at their own inaction. The women, put to shame, ran into their homes. But it was not long before all of them girded up their loins and came to the aid of their beloved sister.
Thus did Nivedita teach the people of Calcutta their first lessons in sanitation, self-help and social service, not by precept but by practice.
Nivedita formed a committee of social workers in order to fight the plague on a well-organized basis. Squads of earnest and devoted workers fanned out in all directions and not only cleaned all the streets and lanes but nursed the victims.
Nivedita worked round the clock, often-foregoing even food and rest. Her health was seriously impaired, and she became worn out.
She ran from home to home, hoping against hope to overtake and frustrating death. Often, however, to her great grief, death forestalled her and frustrated her noble design. On one occasion, the victim, a mere boy, died in her motherly lap. At such times, Nivedita stayed on with the unfortunate bereaved for hours together, offering them her consolation and sympathy.
Nivedita and her team incessantly carried on their formidable effort for full thirty days before they succeeded in bringing the enemy to his heel. In the meanwhile, Nivedita had literally saved hundreds of victims from the very jaws of death, staking her very life in the process.
All through these grueling days, Nivedita lived on fruit and milk, and nothing more. She had to give up even milk on one occasion to save the money for the medicines needed by a plague victim.
A Pilgrimage to the West
Nivedita’s school was just limping on for want of funds. Even to draw pupils was arduous enough; where was the question of collection of any fee? And the problem was to run the school and have enough left just to support her life.
Would it be proper to go to the west in order to collect the funds needed for her work here? She sought the Master’s advice and was relieved to find that he gave her his hearty approval. Nivedita sailed for Europe in the middle of June 1899.
From Europe she went to America. Her original aim was just to raise enough funds for her small school. But, upon her arrival in America, she found that the urgent task was to educate the Americans about India and her glorious culture.
A Great deal of false and malicious propaganda had been carried on against India and her religions by some Christian missionaries who had grown extremely jealous of the tremendous impact on the west of Swami Vivekananda’s powerful address at the Parliament of Religions and of the growing popularity of Hinduism, especially of the Vedanta, not only in America but in Europe.
They had been systematically painting a totally misleading picture of India by blowing up her poverty, ignorance, and superstition out of all proportion. These evil doings of so-called men of religion were, she felt, an outrage against Christ himself. Like the Master, she went on a whirlwind tour of the states and addressed huge gatherings in all the principal towns and cities in order to educate the Americans about the real state of India at the time, the greatness of her past, the sublimity of her cultural and spiritual heritage and above all, the true causes of the present degradation. She was a gifted orator. She had stepped in India’s history, her religions, and her scriptures. In living words, charged with truth and invigorated by her sincerely, she depicted India in vivid colors. The audience felt deep regret that they had let themselves be totally misled by pious frauds. They were thankful to Nivedita for revealing to them the very soul of India.
She had succeeded in making America realize that India’s degradation was essentially due to their long subjection to foreign rule. But she had not gained substantial success in raising funds for her school and for her other work in India.
The Master is No More
Nivedita returned to India in 1901.
She now took up lodgings at No.17, Bosepara Lane, which became henceforth both her home and her school. It became, in addition, a veritable center of pilgrimage for all the eminent personages of the time-political leaders fighting for the country’s freedom, men of intellect.
About this time a young lady from Germany, named Miss Christine Greenstidel, came to serve India and joined Nivedita. Her assistance was very valuable to Nivedita.
Nivedita’s school began its work again. This time it was not only girls who came to receive instruction, but even their mothers. It was extremely difficult to meet the expenses of the school. Like Nivedita, Christine too had to undergo great privation. But with a firm resolve, they kept up the struggle and carried on their endeavor of educating girls and women.
1902-the darkest year in Nivedita’s life. She went to see the Master at the Belur Math. That was on June 29. In the course of the conversation, the Swamiji remarked, “ A great austerity and meditation are coming upon me. I am getting ready for death.” The 2nd of July was an Ekadasi Day (read about the rules of Ekadashi here). Nivedita felt an irresistible urge to see the Master again. When she was announced at the Math, the Swamiji was filled with joy. He was himself fasting. Yet he got a meal ready for Nivedita and personally served it to her. After she had her meal, he assisted her to wash her hands by pouring water, and then despite her protests, he dried her hands with a towel. Deeply pained, she demurred; “Swamiji, it would be proper for me to serve you thus, not to receive such services at your hands.”
He answered: “Jesus washed the feet of his own disciples, didn’t he?”
“Yes, but that was in his last moments,” she tried to say. But the words failed her.
That day the Master’s entire being was transformed with his love when he gave his chosen disciple his blessing. The joy she felt at this made her forget her recent pain. She went home, feeling blessed.
Poor Nivedita little knew that this was to be her last meeting with the Master. His Christ-like service to her, not less than his clear allusion to Jesus, was indeed significant.
The Swamiji attained Mahasamadhi on the night of July 3. On July 4, even as the day was breaking, the heartbreaking message was brought to Nivedita. She staggered under the blow. The Master whom she adored, her all in all, her sole stay, and support in life, the Guru who had given meaning and direction and purpose to her earthly existence, was no more. The light was gone. Everything was dark.
She ran to the Math and, sobbing her heart out, she paid her homage to the Master. The profound serenity of samadhi was upon his face.
Seated by the Master, she fanned his face until 2 p.m. Vedic mantras were chanted. The Swamiji’s body was carried in procession to the banks of the Ganga and offered up to the flames. Cries of “Jai Swamiji!” Swami Vevekanandaji Ki Jai!” rent the air and rose to the heavens.
The millions that had gathered at the cremation ground melted away in a few minutes.
The scene was all deserted. Nivedita sat there, all alone, with no thought of her surroundings, with a faraway gaze. The Master was no more.
To whom could she go henceforth for counsel and support? From whom could she seek solace?
Fight for India’s Freedom
It was not in Nivedita’s nature to go on brooding, lamenting and despairing. The message instilled in her by the Master was not one of feebleness and fear but of confidence and courage.
As a lioness springs into action, shakes her mane and marches majestically on with her thunderous roar, so did she rouse herself, shook off her grief and anguish, and, assuming the mantle of leadership, gave to India and the world her ringing message.
Onerous was the burden laid on her by the Master. She must be true to him and fulfill her trust. It was in this spirit that she resumed her life of strenuous toil. Mother India became an object of adoration for her, and the liberation of India her life’s mission.
She had once believed that Britain and India could remain friends. But she came to realize that it was a delusion. For she could plainly see that Britain was not only draining the very life-blood of India but, in her imperialistic insolence, choose to hurl insults upon India’s noblest sons.
Two incidents gave her a rude shock. Jagadish Chandra Bose, the world-renowned Indian scientist, was an intimate friend on Nivedita. She had witnessed with joyful pride how in France the highest honors were conferred upon him. But in Britain, he had not been accorded the honor that was due to him. Again, when Bipin Chandra Pal, the great Indian nationalist, rose to address an American gathering, someone among the audience leaped to his feet to hurl insulting words at him. “Mr. Pal, let your country attain freedom first. You can come and lecture later.”
The very recollection of these incidents was enough to make Nivedita’s blood boil. The conviction grew upon her that, until India gained political independence, Indians could never hope to be treated like men. So this woman, who was the whitest among the whites, vowed to fight, in thought, word, and deed, for the liberation of a country which she had adopted as her own motherland. The power of her tongue and the power of her pen she dedicated to the sacred cause of India’s struggle for freedom.
All over Bengal Nivedita’s name became a household word. Addressing mammoth meetings in several meetings in several important places like Patna, Lucknow, Varanasi, Bombay, Nagpur, and Madras, she sounded the clarion call of freedom. The British grew furious, but could not venture to silence her. On the contrary, several distinguished persons of Britain like Ramsay Macdonald, who was to become Britain’s Prime Minister, and Lady Minto, whose husband later became the Viceroy of India, visited her small school and commended its excellent work in extending education to India’s womanhood.
Nivedita made her school the very center of nationalism. Bankim Babu’s famous national anthem, Vande Mataram, became the prayer song in her school. She changed over to Khadi.
With her it became a daily practice to spin on the Charaka; following her noble example, her pupils, too, practiced spinning every day.
It was Nivedita again who brought about a revolution in Bengali art. Instead of being true to Indian culture or to their own inspiration, Indian painters of the day had become just imitative; they copied western models. Nivedita admonished them for this mentality and kept on goading them to retain their Indianness. She encouraged gifted artists like Rabindranath Tagore, Nandalal Bose, and Asita Haldar by even providing them with funds; this enabled them to make a pilgrimage to Ajanta, Ellora and other centers of art in order to seek inspiration from the great Indian artists of the past. Under Nivedita’s powerful influence there was a remarkable flowering of Bengali art.
Everything Indian became for Nivedita an object of adoration. She wrote books in order to interpret for Indians their own national heritage. She upheld, by reasoned argument, ancient institutions like idol worship, religious and national festivals and other holy days; she revealed the greatness of our sublime epics and the sacred Puranas; and, above all, she pointed out the uniqueness of our scriptures. She thus made Indians learn to be proud of those priceless things of which they had come to be needlessly ashamed.
Nivedita’s life had now become one continuous round of political consultations and campaigns, public meetings and addresses, writing books and carrying on hectic correspondence.
These not only took up all her time but sapped all her vitality. Her circle of friends, followers, and admirers also went on growing. To the Holy Mother, she became the darling daughter. To the Paramahamsa’s direct disciples she was an object of great affection and regard. To Rabindranath Tagore, she was an unfailing source of inspiration.
To eminent political leaders like Surendranath Banerjee, Gopalakrishna Gokhale, Rama Chandra Dutt, Bipin Chandra Pal, and Aurobindo Ghosh, she was a philosopher and friend. And to the youth of the nation, she was a veritable idol.
The greatest of the nation’s leaders, Balagangadhara Tilak and Mahatma Gandhi, came to her and paid their respects. Nivedita’s life was thus a real saga of service and sacrifice, of achievement and fulfillment.
The Swan Song
Through her unbroken, unending toil Nivedita wore herself out. She knew not the meaning of rest. People exploited Nivedita and did not take the trouble of enquiring what she herself needed.
In 1905 she was seriously ill. Her close friends, especially the monks of the Ramakrishna Ashram, tended and nursed her. She rallied-for the time being. But she would not rest, little caring to save her wasting body. The British Government partitioned Bengal and this resulted in great agitation. Nivedita jumped into the fray. Next year, East Bengal experienced devastating floods.
This was followed by famine. For miles, Nivedita waded through the water and rendered service to the victims of flood and famine, in the village after village. She harnessed the youth of Bengal in organizing relief for the affected people.
Her health grew much worse. But unmindful of her own state, she went on serving the poor and saving the distressed. When her health was very bad, she made her will. All that she had in this world by way of property, the little money she had with her, and even the copyright over her writings, she left for the Belur Math. She wanted that her bequest should be used to give national education to the women of India.
October 13. It was morning. Nivedita was in Darjeeling. The sun, which had for days been hiding its face behind the dark clouds, suddenly appeared this morning, and its rays entered Nivedita’s room. She was absorbed in deep meditation. Opening her eyes to the sunshine, she murmured: “This frail boat of mine is sinking, but I can yet see the sunrise”. These were the last words of this noble soul.
It was not, however, just a boat that had sunk; it was a mighty ship. The sunrise that she was, was the kind of illumination which only the like of her can see.
Sir J.C. Bose founded his famous Institute for research. There, in Nivedita’s memory, he got installed the image of a woman stepping forward, lamp in hand.
In the lap of the Himalayas rests the earthly form of this great lady. Over her grave is erected a humble memorial that bears this simple epitaph.
“Here reposes Sister Nivedita who gave her all to India”.
But it is the little school that Nivedita had set up that has grown to be the living monument.
Thousands and thousands of girls and women are receiving a truly national education in that noble institution.