“The whole history of the world shows that the Indian intellect is second to none. This must be proved by the performance of a task beyond the power of others, the seizing of the first place in the intellectual advance of the world. Is there any inherent weakness that would make it impossible for us to do this? 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.”- Sister Nivedita in Karma Yogin

Life and work of Sister Nivedita show us that tradition and modernity can be kept together for the development of this country. On her 150th year, her thoughts are as relevant as before.

Her life is an example of the respect of women and culture in the Hindu civilizational thought. For all those who criticize Hindu Dharma for being disrespectful to women, Nivedita proves them wrong and sets an alternative way of looking at India. She revived traditional art, supported Indian scientists, redefined literacy for women and advocated for an Indian way of development.

‘Margaret Elizabeth Noble’ became Sister Nivedita when Vivekananda initiated her into the vow of Brahmacharya on 25th March 1898, becoming the first Western woman to be received into an Indian monastic order. In the 19th century, she broke 21st-century customs. Brought up by an Irish freedom fighter and taught in the spiritual school, she had already delved deep into the teachings of the East and the West. Nivedita wrote in 1904 to a friend about her decision to follow Swami Vivekananda as a result of her meeting him in England in November 1895:

“Suppose he had not come to London that time! Life would have been like a headless dream, for I always knew that I was waiting for something. I always said that a call would come. And it did. But if I had known more of life, I doubt whether, when the time came, I should certainly have recognised it.”

Women and Education

In Ireland, she had worked as a teacher of children and then established her own school where she followed her unique methods of teaching and thus, she was chosen for the role of educating Indian women. Vivekananda believed education was the panacea for all evils plaguing the contemporary Indian Society, especially that of Indian women. Eschewing the standard approach of imparting a purely European “Civilising” Education, she wanted key elements of a Western education and sought a synthesis with Indian Culture. Sister Nivedita declared that “first and foremost, we must root them in their own past” and then give Indian women the three characteristics of a modern mind, “Scientific standards geographical conception, historical possessions.” Reaffirming her belief in Hindu Goddess, on the day of Kali Puja  (13th November 1898), Nivedita opened her first school in Kolkata.

In combination with classroom learning, the industrial department (Pura-Stree Vibhaga) in the school was initiated in 1903. Handicrafts like embroidery, tailoring, and toy-making are taught here. Currently, this industrial section is affiliated to the Directorate of Cottage and Small Scale Industries, Government.

She redefined literacy for women and supported the feminine qualities carried by them. Whenever she lectured, she spoke about Indian women and held high the banner of Indian ideals of womanhood.  In her speech at Madras:

‘When we come to the charge that Indian women are ignorant, we meet with a far deeper fallacy. They are ignorant in the modern form, that is to say, few can write, and not very many can read. Are they then illiterate? If so, the Mahabharata and Ramayana and the Purana stories every mother and every grandmother tell to the babies, are not literature. But European novels and the Strand Magazine by the same token are. Can anyone accept this paradox? To those who know Indian life, it is easy to see that an Indian woman who has the education of an Indian home–the dignity, the gentleness, the cleanliness, the thrift, the religious training, the culture of mind and heart which that home-life entails–though she cannot sign her name, maybe infinitely better educated in every true sense, and in a literary sense also, than her glib critic.’

National Movement

Nivedita’s conception of nationalism was to awaken a nationalistic consciousness in all the areas of national life–  education, literature, science, history, arts and folk culture.

The worship of the goddess Kali and traditional family practices became the focal point of her own romanticized interpretation of “Muscular Hinduism”. A metaphor for death overcoming life in spiritual terms, Kali was seen as freeing her worshippers from fear and thus empowering them, and Nivedita associated this empowerment with the burgeoning Indian nationalist movement.

She spread the national consciousness by writing in Indian newspapers and periodicals like The Statesman, Amrita Bazar Patrika, Dawn, Prabuddha Bharata and Bal-Bharati. She also wrote several books, the most remarkable of which are: Kali the Mother, Cradle Tales of Hinduism, The Master As I Saw Him. The best of Nivedita’s books on Indian national life was The Web of Indian Life. Through this book, Nivedita gives a fitting reply to vile representations made by the Western scholars of Indian culture and civilization.

Science and Art

At the time, when Indian tradition was seen as inferior, Nivedita worked for the revival of arts and science. An Irish woman wearing a European attire taught us to flower according to our innate nature.

At the time of Vivekananda, the Indian scientist Jagadish Chandra Bose created a sensation in the world by his original scientific work. But in a dependent India, Bose carried out his work under extremely unfavourable conditions. Realizing Bose’s worth, Nivedita exerted her influence to secure his assistance from the Government. Nivedita propagated his work through newspapers and periodicals. As his research work entailed substantial expenses, she helped him financially also.

Not only in the field of scientific research, but also she made a unique contribution in developing an art movement in the national lines. This movement, that grew with Havell and Abanindranath and culminated in Nandalal Bose, owes much to Nivedita. She always inspired and guided the talented students of the Calcutta Art School to move along the forgotten tracks of ancient Indian art. In the same way, she greatly encouraged eminent personalities like Romesh Chandra Dutt and Jadunath Sarkar in writing history along the nationalist ideals.

Sister Nivedita left her body on 13th October 1911. She remains one of the most influential female figures of India. Her book Kali, the Mother influenced Abanindranath Tagore who painted Bharat Mata. Several schools and colleges have been named after her. In 1968, the Indian Government issued a postal stamp in her memory. The Nivedita bridge near Dakhineswar, Kolkata is named in her honour. In a short life of 44 years, she lived as a social worker, author, and through all her activities personified the goal of Swami Vivekananda to ‘Be and Make’.

Nivedita used to say that her task was nation-building. For her, progressing and conserving were not at odds. She could take India on the path of development while preserving its traditional beauty. Her love for the country is reflected in her epitaph: “Here reposes Sister Nivedita who gave her all to India.”

We must not fail her.

Soumya Garg
The article was published by The Pioneer on November 3rd, 2017.