Among the list of great women of India, the name of one woman stands out for dedicating her life to the cause of India and Hinduism in spite of being born in the Western world. She was Sister Nivedita whose contribution to the promotion of national consciousness and re-establishment of Dharma is immeasurable in the annals of Indian history. She has been described as ‘Lokmata’ by Rabindranath Tagore, ‘Lioness’ by Swami Vivekananda, ‘Agnisikha’ or flame of fire by Sri Aurobindo, ‘Champion of India’ in England and ‘Sister’ by all the people of India.
Birth and Early life
Sister Nivedita or Margaret Noble was born in the year 1867 in Ireland. Her father Samuel Noble was a priest in an Irish Church and her mother was Mary Isobel a simple and God fearing woman. They were of Scottish descent and had settled in Ireland for many centuries. In those days, Ireland was fighting for freedom from England. Her paternal grandfather was John Noble who was also a priest in the Irish church. From a very young age Margaret would accompany her grandfather whenever he went to visit the homes of the sick and poor to render service to them. Thus, service and compassion became her hallmark from a very young age. Her father too continued this legacy of selfless service with love and compassion. It is said that his kind and loving heart would make him toil for the weak and poor in spite of his meagre income and limited resources. Finally due to overwork and weakness he succumbed at the young age of thirty four when Margaret was only ten years old. His wife Mary then took Margaret and her sister to her parental home in Ireland.
Margaret attended Halifax College run by a member of the Congregational Church. Here, she studied various subjects including arts, literature, music and physics. The strict and disciplined life and the lessons of personal sacrifice and knowledge were deeply imprinted in her by the headmistress of the college. Consequently, she decided to become a teacher and taught the children using various interesting methods which made her popular with parents and children. It is said that at this time she came into contact with a Welsh engineer and soon they became engaged. But, unfortunately, he passed away due an incurable illness which plunged young Margaret in grief. She then immersed herself in Church related activities, established a school and being a prolific writer wrote in periodicals and papers. Thus, she became well known among the intellectuals of London. Yet there was restlessness and a deep hunger for peace of mind in her which made her study various books on religion including Buddhism and other books from the East.
The Momentous meeting
The year 1895 was a momentous year that changed the course of Margaret‘s life. Lady Isabel who was a friend of Margaret had invited an Indian monk to her home and she invited Margaret also to the gathering. In later years, Margaret often recalled this historic event and her immediate affinity to the great saint who was none other than Swami Vivekananda. She was already aware of the Sanskrit verses that he recited as she had delved deep into the sacred lore of the East but the radiance and luminosity of his personality and bearing deeply impressed her. She found out about his attendance at the Parliament of Religions in Chicago and his inspiring address which had captured the hearts and minds of millions of people. She immediately realised that his assertions were not mere bookish knowledge but were living words which were charged with the Eternal Truths that he had seen and experienced and which sprang from the depths of his soul.
The words and mantras spoken by Swami Vivekananda chipped away the darkness and ignorance of millions of her lifetimes like a chisel sweeping away centuries of superstition, doubt and darkness and awakening her soul. As she wrote later Swami Vivekananda like an affectionate mother at times offering tender advice and as a friend at other times offering frank and sincere instructions and admonishments, the purity and virtuous flame of his spirit captured her heart and mind turning her into clay that could be moulded by a master potter.
One day Swami Vivekananda was in the midst of his discourse when overwhelmed by his feelings of love and dedication for his motherland India, asked the audience if there were twenty men and women who could dare to stand in public and declare their allegiance to none but God and India which was the need of the day. Being shy, Margaret remained tongue-tied though her heart longed to give her consent. On another occasion speaking about the women in India, Swami Vivekananda expressed his desire for the education of women to ensure their growth and welfare. He then mentioned his faith in Margaret’s abilities to be of service to him to help the women of India. Margaret was overwhelmed at his request as she did not feel equal to the huge task, but Swami Vivekananda exhorted and reassured her and consequently Margaret resolved to dedicate herself to this calling.
Slowly Margaret began to lose interest in teaching and reading and felt that India was beckoning her. But she knew that the challenges were great as there was poverty, ignorance and narrow-mindedness there which she had never experienced before. Also the British were ruling the country and though she was a British herself, she detested their imperialist policies. But Swami Vivekananda encouraged her to make use of her knowledge, skill and purity of heart, love and patience to embark on this mission and reassured her that in case of failure she need not worry as he would stand by her no matter what the outcome.
On Indian Soil
The boat carrying Margaret Noble reached Calcutta in the year 1898. Swami Vivekananda himself came to the port to receive her. She soon immersed herself in the first step of learning the local language Bengali, as it was necessary in her dealing with the masses and winning the confidence of the people. Later, she was joined by two women disciples of Swami Vivekananda from America, Miss Macleod and Mrs Bull, who had come after hearing his clarion call to help in the upliftment of women in India. The three women became good friends and their cottage became an ashram. Swami Vivekananda would come alone or accompanied by other monks and address them for hours on India, her history, poets, epics and above all her great saints and sages. The ashram would become filled with holy vibrations in his divine presence. The audience would forget themselves as they listened to the past glory of ancient India. Swami Vivekananda impressed upon them that the best way to serve him was to serve his beloved India.
Sister Nivedita and the Holy Mother
Meanwhile Shri Ramakrishna Paramahansa, the Divine Master of Swami Vivekananda, passed away and his saintly wife Mother Sarada Devi inspired all his devotees and disciples to heroic achievement and noble endeavour. Margaret had a deep longing to meet the holy mother but was apprehensive if she would receive her, being a foreigner in the rigid caste ridden system of those times. But Mother Sarada Devi was an embodiment of love and received all three women as a mother receives her own children and blessed them to succeed in their mission. Referring to Margaret, the holy Mother would often comment on her sincerity, devotion and simplicity and the pull that the inner soul of the holy mother felt for a sincere devotee like Margaret.
The great day dawned for which Margaret seemed to be destined for all her life. Swami Vivekananda took all of them to the Math. He then led Margaret to the shrine of Lord Shiva and taught her to worship according to prescribed norms. He then gave her the authority to perform the rites of worship unaided. Margaret was thrilled with this unique privilege and matchless blessing conferred on her. Swami Vivekananda then ceremonially initiated Margaret into the order of celibacy, devotion and purity. He bestowed on her the name ‘Nivedita’ meaning ‘The Dedicated One’. He then asked her to place lotus flowers at the feet of Lord Buddha. He then blessed her to go forth like the Great Buddha and tread the path of sacrifice, renunciation and compassion reflected by him.
In the field of Education
Sister Nivedita opened her school in a small way in a rented cottage. But the greater problem to be surmounted was to persuade the parents to overcome their prejudices and send their girls to school. Many of them were shocked, and openly jeered her. But she was undaunted, and persisting in her efforts, she succeeding in gathering a few girls of varying ages. She taught them reading, writing, sewing, painting, drawing, health and hygiene and clay modelling. Slowly her love, sincerity and determination, broke the resistance of the people. They opened their hearts and homes to her and she gradually moved among them and became a member of their families.
Plague in Calcutta
In the year 1899, there was an outbreak of plague in Calcutta, which spread like wild fire and devastated the city. Hundreds of lives were lost and Sister Nivedita plunged into action. No work was too trivial or menial for her as she cleaned drains and swept streets while people looked on in surprise not wanting to dirty their hands. But soon they felt guilty seeing her determination, and joined her in her efforts. Thus, by practice and not merely by precept, Sister Nivedita taught the people their first lessons of social service, sanitation and self help. She then formed a dedicated committee of workers to fight the plague. Squads of them sincerely and dedicatedly went in all directions cleaning the streets and nursing the sick. Foregoing food and rest, Sister Nivedita worked tirelessly trying to forestall death. Victims died on her lap, yet she carried on undeterred, offering the bereaved, sympathy and consolation. Staking her life, thousands were saved, from the jaws of death. Finally the plague was contained, but Sister Nivedita’s health was affected and she was worn out with her efforts.
Travelling with Swami Vivekananda
Sister Nivedita travelled along with Swami Vivekananda and other disciples to a number of places in India to connect to the Indian masses and learn more about their history and culture. She also went to America with the permission of Swami Vivekananda to raise help and awareness for her cause. As she sought funds for her school, she addressed huge gatherings to educate the Americans on the great glorious spiritual heritage of India, and the present state of degradation due to suppression, foreign rule and bigotry. Being a gifted orator, her love for India and the greatness of its ancient Spiritual Dharma, shone forth and people gave up their inherent prejudices about India, and listened to her.
Glimpses of glory
During the summer, Swami Vivekananda took Nivedita and other disciples to Almora, a hill station in the Himalayas. Preaching to them the great eternal truths with instructions, discourses and meditation, Swami Vivekananda sought to uproot her dogmas, preconceived notions and emotional dependence on him and Sister Nivedita learnt calming and meditation from the Bhagavad Gita finally realising the Impersonal Vision and the greatness of her Guru. She immersed herself totally in the realisation of the Self and the need to completely destroy the ego in order to perceive the light within. She considered herself as the spiritual daughter of the great Guru Swami Vivekananda and she accompanied him to Amarnath, where she saw her Guru steeped in ecstasy for many days. Swami Vivekananda taught her to eschew lower passions, control the vagaries of the mind and meditate with one pointed devotion. She desired to become a Sannyasini, but Swami Vivekananda realised that such initiation, may limit her field of approach and activity and encouraged her to continue with service, coupled with ideals of renunciation and devotion.
The passing away of her Guru
Sister Nivedita continued her school with renewed vigour. Now even the mothers of the girls, adult women and widows showed keen interest in educating themselves. It was extremely difficult to meet the mounting expenses but she continued undeterred. In 1902, she went to see Swami Vivekananda at Belur math. He informed her that he was getting ready for his impending death. After a few days, sister Nivedita developed a strong urge to see her Guru once again. The earlier night she had dreamt that Shri Ramakrishna was leaving his body for the second time. Her Guru welcomed her and personally served her a meal after which he assisted her in washing and drying her hands. When she demurred that it was her duty to serve him, Swami Vivekananda stated that even Jesus washed the feet of his own disciples. Sister Nivedita pondered that such service only occurred during the last moments of Jesus. Swami Vivekananda was filled with joy and love and blessed her. His significant words came true and a day later he attained Mahasamadhi. When Sister Nivedita heard the news, she was grief stricken and went to pay her final homage to him. She sat fanning his body, until it was consigned to the flames amidst Vedic rituals. Slowly she threw away the mantle of grief and desolation, and decided to be true to her Guru and fulfil his trust in her.
Fight for India’s freedom
Sister Nivedita soon realised that until India attained independence from the British, they could never develop self pride and break the shackles of poverty and ignorance. She sounded the clarion call for independence, through the power of her writings and by addressing mammoth meetings, to exhort people to fight for independence. She made her school the very centre of nationalism, wore khadi and began spinning the Charkha. She brought about a revolution in Bengali art by goading Indian artists not to copy the West, but retain their Indianness by seeking inspiration from the great Indian artists of the past. She encouraged Dr. Jagdish Chandra Bose and even helped him financially. She is said to have been a great influence on Subramanya Bharati, the great Tamil poet and even designed the then national flag of India. She was also close to Sri Aurobindo and edited his national newspaper. Everything Indian became the object of preservation and adoration for Sister Nivedita and she pointed out the greatness and the uniqueness of the scriptures, art, culture and tried to awaken in people, a sense of pride and love for their motherland. Thus she became a friend, philosopher and guide to devotees, politicians, artists and to the youth of India.
Her Final Days
Her continuous and rigorous efforts and stupendous activities finally took a toll on her health. The partition of Bengal, the floods, famine and subsequent developments led to untiring service activities and mammoth organisation of relief measures. This affected her physical health greatly and she fell very sick. Her close friends including the monks of the Ramakrishna Ashram tended and nursed her. Finally, the state of her health slowly grew worse and knowing that her end was near, she bequeathed all that she possessed to the Belur Math. Thus, in the year 1911, at the young age of forty four, absorbed in the Divine she chanted the prayer in the Upanishads ‘Asato Maa Sadgamaya’ which translates ‘Lead us from the Unreal to the Real, Lead us from darkness to light, Lead us from death to Immortality, Om Peace Peace Peace’ and weak in body but strong in mind, she passed away leaving behind a great legacy of selfless service to society and devotion to the Lord. Her earthly form rests in Darjeeling in the lap of the Himalayas. Over her grave a humble memorial has been erected which bears the simple epitaph, ‘Here reposes Sister Nivedita, who gave her all to India’.
Book and articles
Being a prolific writer, Sister Nivedita wrote a number of books and articles. Her books encompassed all topics ranging from spirituality, life and death, Indian history, Hindu life, education etc. She wrote ‘The Web of Indian Life’ to rectify the wrong notions and myths of the Western world with relation to Indian customs and culture. During her travels with Swami Vivekananda to Almora and other places she experienced the encyclopaedic mind of her Guru as he touched upon various subjects , religions, society and recorded them for posterity admirably in her books ‘The Master as I saw him’ and ‘Notes of Some wanderings with Swami Vivekananda’. She wrote ‘The Cradle tales of Hinduism’ on stories from the Puranas and the epics Ramayana and Mahabharata, Glimpses of Famine and flood in East Bengal, Studies from an Eastern Home, Civil Ideal and Indian Nationality, Hints on National Education in India, Select essays of Sister Nivedita, Myths of the Hindus and Buddhists, Footfalls of Indian History, Religion and Dharma, Civic and national ideals. Her books influenced a great number of people like Abanindranath Tagore who painted Bharat Mata after reading her book ‘Kali the Mother’.
Educational Institutions and Honour
In honour of her memory, the West Bengal board of Secondary education Kolkata has been named after Sister Nivedita. A number of schools and colleges all over the country have been named after her. Roads, bridges and parks too have been named in her memory. A postal stamp was also issued by the Indian government honouring her immense contribution to India in various fields. Her birth centenary was celebrated widely throughout India in the year 1967.
Sister Nivedita was one of the foremost personalities in the galaxy of twentieth century revivalists and her intense spirituality, strength of mind, purity and austerity are enshrined in the hearts and minds of the people of India. Her legacy of works and articles which she has left behind give an insight into the pursuit of truth and her higher calling for which she had left her homeland and embraced Hinduism. She was a personification of service and compassion and was the symbol of devotion and sacrifice. Her name continues to rest in the various institutions and books she left behind and in the hearts she transformed in her love for God and Hinduism.