To not a few of us, the words of Swami Vivekananda came as living water to men perishing of thirst. Many of us had been conscious for years past of that growing uncertainty and despair with regard to Religion, which has beset the intellectual life of Europe for half a century. Belief in the dogmas of Christianity had become impossible to us, and we had no means, such as we now hold, by which to separate the doctrinal shell from the kernel of reality in our faith. To these the Vedanta has given intellectual confirmation and philosophical expression of their own mistrusted intuitions.
Swami Vivekananda was one of the towering icons of the Bengal Renaissance. A man who inspired Hindus with his call of “Arise, Awake and Stop Not Till you reach your goal”. And his clarion call, inspired the nascent revolutionary movement in India, as well as a whole generation that began to discover the pride in their roots and heritage. He made youth shake off their inferiority complex bred for years by a Macaulayized education system, that showed India as a savage, inferior nation. Swami Vivekananda, inspired some of them, were his fellow disciples who founded the Ramakrishna Math, and some spread his message to the people, while others found refuge in the creative arts. One such was actually from outside India, Margaret Elizabeth Nobel, better known to us as Bhagini Nivedita, one of Swamiji’s most loyal disciples, who spread his message. It was not just Swamiji’s message, her contribution to the nationalist movement is significant too. She had close contacts with many revolutionaries, was one of the forces behind the Anti Bengal partition movement against Curzon. Apart from that she made contribution to women’s education, revived Indian art forms, promoted science, and worked on relief during epidemics and famines. She was one of the driving forces behind the Bengal Renaissance, that produced some of the finest artistes, writers, scientists, thinkers and freedom fighters.
The woman who created such an impact was born as Margaret Elizabeth Nobel, Dungannon, a small town currently in Northern Ireland. Her father, Samuel Richmond Noble, was a pastor himself who taught her “Service to mankind is service to God” which she later made as her life’s guiding principle. Her maternal grandfather, Hamilton, was one of the leading lights of the early Irish nationalist movement.. With her father passing away when she was just 10, her mother Mary, bought her to her grandfather’s home where she grew up. She imbibed her father’s religious temperament as well as her grandfather’s nationalist spirit.
A brilliant student, Margaret Noble, began her career as a teacher at just 17, and was also a prolific writer of sorts too. She worked for some time in a Welsh coal mining town, where apart from teaching she helped the poor too. By the time she was 25, she started her own school in Wimbledon, influenced by the ideas of noted German educator Friedrich Froebel. However tragedy struck her personal life, when her Welsh fiance passed away just after their engagement. Grief stricken, she dedicated her life to the cause of education, and serving the poorer classes of society.
The turning point came in November , 1895, when Swami Vivekananda, was touring England. By that time, she had established herself as one of the leading intellectuals in London’s elite circles and an educationist of note. Though a devout Christian, she was not really satisfied with what she heard. The Church seemed to be incompatible with her own belief system.
So I began ardently to study how this world was created and all things in it and I discovered that in the laws of Nature at least there was consistency, but it made the doctrines of the Christian religion seem all the more inconsistent. Just then I happened to get a life of Buddha and in it I found that here also was a child who lived ever so many centuries before the Child Christ, but whose sacrifices were no less self-abnegating than those of the other. This dear child Gautama took a strong hold on me and for the next three years I plunged into the study of the religion of Buddha, and became more and more convinced that the salvation he preached was decidedly more consistent with the Truth than the preachings of the Christian religion
On her friend’s invite she attended a lecture on Vedanta by Swami Vivekananda, “A majestic personage, clad in a saffron gown and wearing a red waistband, sat there on the floor, cross-legged. As he spoke to the company, he recited Sanskrit verses in his deep, sonorous voice” in her own words. She felt she had discovered the truth she was looking for. She had a good knowledge of Eastern philosophy , but Swamiji’s word’s seemed to be speaking directly to her, beyond mere books.
I had recognized the heroic fibre of the man, and desired to make myself the servant of his love for his own people. But it was his character to which I had thus done obeisance.Suppose he had not come to London that time! Life would have been 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 recognized it.
She soon attended a series of lectures by Swamiji, and her mind was made up. Sensing the interest and passion in her about India, Swami Vivekananda, invited her, he felt she had a role to play there. Believing that only education cud liberate the people of India, he asked Elizabeth Noble to help in that cause.
Finally on January 28, 1898, Margaret Nobel arrived in India, leaving her family and friends,in Ireland, responding to Swami Vivekananda’s call. She spent the first few weeks in India, learning about the culture, history, heritage from Swamiji. Around this time, 2 of Swami Vivekananda’s lady disciples, Sara Bull, Josephine McLeod also came to India and she became close friends with them. He introduced Margaret Nobel to the audiences in Kolkata, and she later met Sharada Devi too.
You have to set yourself to Hinduize your thoughts, your needs, your conceptions and your habits. Your life, internal and external, has to become all that an orthodox Brahmana Brahmacharini’s ought to be. The method will come to you, if only your desire it sufficiently. But you have to forget your own past and to cause it to be forgotten. You have to lose even its memory- Swami Vivekananda.
On March 25, 1898, Margaret Elizabeth Noble, was formally initiaited into Brahmacharya and was given the name of Nivedita, the dedicated one. She had a very close bonding with Sharada Devi, who affectionately called her Kooki( younger girl). In India she had found her soul’s home and destiny. She recorded her experiences with Swami Vivekananda in her book The Master As I saw Him, considered herself his spiritual daughter. Sarada Devi was the one who inaugurated Nivedita’s school for girls, and sought the blessings of the Divine Mother.
“In these talks of his, the heroism of the Rajput, the faith of the Sikh, the courage of the Mahratta, the devotion of the saints, and the purity and steadfastness of noble women, all lived again.”
She had a very strong bonding with Sharada Devi, whom she regarded as one of the strongest and wisest women, under her very simple and unassuming appearance. Sharada Devi on the other hand admired Nivedita’s sincere devotion to her-” She never considered anything too much she might do for me”. The very iconic picture of Sharada Devi, was taken by Nivedita herself.
Nivedita also traveled extensively in India, along with Swami Vivekananda, Josephine McLeod, Sara Bull, connecting to the masses. She travelled in Nainital, Almora, where she learnt meditation, and then to Kashmir, all over the Himalayas. Settling in the neighborhood of Bagh Bazaar, she started a school for girls at her home, 16, Bosepara Lane. She believed education should combine traditional Indian values with modern learning.
When Swami Vivekananda passed away in 1902, Sister Nivedita was all the time beside him, fanning his body, while disciples and others visited him to pray respects. She attended his cremation too, and carried a small saffron cloth as her memory of Swamiji. Nivedita did yeoman work for the cause of women’s education, travelling from home to home to educate the girls. She designed Basu Vigyan Mandir,institute for higher scientific reserach by Bose, based on Hindu,Buddhist concepts. Her Baghbazar residence, became a rendezvous for such eminent personalities like Tagore, Aurobindo Ghosh, JC Bose and Gopal Krishna Gokhale.She did yeoman work for the cause of women’s education, travelling from home to home to educate the girls. She designed Basu Vigyan Mandir,institute for higher scientific reserach by Bose, based on Hindu,Buddhist concepts.
She sent Abanindranath Tagore & team of painters to newly discovered Ajanta, Ellora to study arts,bring them mainstream, Tagore, Jagdish Chandra Bose were quite close to Nivedita and she was a great influence on Aurobindo. She encouraged J.C.Bose in his scientific research, helped him financially, as well as ensuring he got recognition. Tagore praised Nivedita’s contribution saying that J.C.Bose success owes a lot to her support, and she deserves as much credit.
A true nationalist, Nivedita whole heartedly supported the freedom movement, witnessing the brutal oppression of British rule. She had to disassociate herself from Ramakrishna Mission, owing to her political activities, however she still was respected there. She was in close touch with revolutionaries of the Anushilan Samity, many of whom were inspired by her writings. When Lord Curzon tried to claim the superiority of the West, she exposed how he had resorted to fraud for his own purposes. Curzon was forced to apologize, after newspapers like Anand Bazar Patrika, carried her statements exposing his duplicity. When Bengal erupted against Curzon’s decision to partition in 1905, Nivedita again supported the movement financially, backing the rebels.
Subramanya Bharati, was motivated to work for women’s education after his meeting with Bhagini Nivedita in 1906. Many artists like Abanindranath Tagore, Ananda Coomaraswamy were guided by Bhagini Nivedita. She had a close friendship with Aurobindo, edited his newspaper Karma Yogin, she was one of the major influences on him. In effect she played a major role in the Bengal Renaissance, helping people financially, giving them the guidance and support.
Abanindranath Tagore’s painting of Bharat Mata was influenced by Nivedita’s book Kali, the Mother. Another well known book by her is Cradle Tales of Hinduism, on various stories dealing with the Itihasas, and Puranas, covering stories of Savitri, Prahalad, Gandhari, Shiva-Parvathi in a very simple format. Though her writings and books, Bhagini Nivedita, explored Indian culture, history in depth, and presented it to the world.
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.
Finally on Oct 13, 1911, she passed away at Roy Villa, Darjeeling. Her epitaph reads
“Here reposes Sister Nivedita who gave her all to India”.
Simple words that express a lot. From spreading the message of Swami Vivekananda to supporting the nationalist movement and revolutionaries to encouraging icons of Bengal Renaissance like Tagore, JC Bose to setting up girl’s schools, Bhagini Nivedita’s contribution to India would forever be remembered