Book Reviews

Sister Nivedita as a Thomas Carlyle Hero(-ine)

A call for self-introspection at the close of Sister’s 150th Birthday

Thomas Carlyle (1795 – 1881), the great Victorian thinker and speaker of his time, his long life spanning more or less the period Sri Ramakrishna, his disciple Swami Vivekananda had been having their dual role play, the Guru preparing his follower in every possible way for the propagation of his message of universal brotherhood, - spoke at length in 1841 his Great Man theory in six of his speeches, which later on came to be titled as On Heroes, Hero-Worship and the Heroic in History.

A classic book, Carlyle enunciates here his conception of a Hero, saying that the history of the world is but the biography of great men who play a vital role in shaping the course of events which have momentous effect on our life. He cites the examples of Odin as a Hero of Divinity; Muhammad, as one of the Prophet; Dante and Shakespeare, as those of the Poet; Martin Luther King as the Hero Priest of Reformation; considering Johnson, Rousseau, Burns likewise as the Hero of Man of Letters and calling, ironically, Oliver Cromwell and Napoleon Bonaparte, both products of a movement of protest, Hero as King.

Put simply, the hero, according to Carlyle, has to be sincere – absolutely so, in what he thinks, says and does and has to lead the life strictly as per his ideals. He must have the capacity to probe, delve deep into reality and bring out nuggets of truth. In this aspect, there is a touch of godliness, a spark of the divine in him.” Such sincerity,” says Carlyle, “… has in very truth something of divine. The word of such a man is a Voice direct from Nature’s own Heart,”

The hero must be a visionary, one who would foresee things and be prepared to deal with them in accordance with his adherence to Truth and high ideals. Not only that, he must have the capability – physical, intellectual, and spiritual to carve out a new and better way of life for his followers to lead.

The hero must have the stamina to protect his clan, a sort of wild, savage vigour, capable of kindling awe and reverence in his admirers. He must have, at the same time, “ a gentle heart, full of pity and love,” as all valiant persons are endowed with.

But a Carlyle Hero is the embodiment of manhood, the ultimate male, masculine incarnate. He must be brave and courageous enough to face any situation and strike a bold line of thinking.

In this respect, in Carlyle’s notion of a Hero, there is no place for a woman, as she lacks the very qualities which can make her heroic. Swami Vivekananda, Sister Nivedita’s revered Guru, who she used to consider as “The Master “, that way meets all the parameters the Hero of Thomas Carlyle is supposed to be assessed against.

Swamiji in his brief but eventful life blazed bright and too dazzling like a meteor, burning himself in the process. He was young, well-built and tall. His portrait as a fiery speaker with an ochre coloured flowing robe on and a regal turban in his head or simply that of a wandering mendicant with a staff of his height in his hand – is awe inspiring. The words that he spoke, he wrote, even in his epistles, is electrifying. He was sincere to the core, ‘savagely sincere’ in the words of Carlyle, pure, truthful, forthright and farsighted.

A visionary, Swamiji could foresee more than a century before the amassing of dark clouds which would collide, explode as booming thunders and flash deadly lightning all across the globe in the form of clash of religious thoughts, a sort of war of civilizations. That’s why, we could hear on September 11, 1893 at the World Parliament of Religions in Chicago, his warning of a gathering storm and advice to forbear a life of tolerance, of amity, of harmony – just as he learnt from his preceptor who practised in his life the belief of all faiths.

And exactly on September 11, much later, a hundred and seven year afterwards, in 2001, the crushing blow came and the twin towers fell before our eyes like pack of cards. The scourge from which the world is still reeling, with no end in sight.

If Swamiji was a singular prophet of his time, his love for the country of his birth was unparalleled. As he had forewarned the world of the dangers ahead, he had roused a nation -, then in bondage, bleeding, suffering patiently, and hopelessly, - from utter despondence. The experience that he had gathered as a monk wandering all over India pained him beyond measure. He swam across three seas at the bottom of the sub-continent to a lonely island , meditated for days on the ways and means to come out of the morass and was directed to the West for possible solutions.

His love for India was unique. Please listen to Sister Christine, an American lady who came to assist Sister Nivedita in her work for the girls’ school at Baghbazar in Calcutta.

“Our love for India came to birth …when we first heard him say the word, ‘India’ in that marvellous voice of his. It seems incredible that so much could have been put into one small word of five letters. There was love, passion, pride, longing, adoration, tragedy, chivalry,.. and again love. Whole volumes could not have produced such a feeling in others. It had the magic power of creating love in others. Ever after, India became the land of heart’s desire. Everything concerning her became of interest – became living – her people, her history, architecture, her manners and customs, her rivers, mountains, plains, her culture, her great spiritual concepts, her scriptures. And so began a new life, a life of study, of meditation. The centre of interest was shifted.”

Such was Swamiji’s passionate love for his Motherland and this he could transmit to all those who he came in contact with and transformed altogether. All these make SV an ideal person who Carlyle could have possibly pronounced a Hero after his mould, had he been living a little longer.

But what about the young lady named Miss Margaret E. Noble, who Swamiji met for the first time in London, on his visit in 1895 to England from America. Can we by any stretch of imagination term her a Hero (-ine) as per Carlyle’s conception?

Swamiji was looking for one in particular who would be capable of working for the women of India, especially educating them both in accordance with modern concepts and following the ancient traditions. In Miss Noble, an accomplished teacher of Irish birth, his search ended. He found someone, intent and eager to break out of the ordinary mores of life, be adventurous and do something novel at his bidding.

But in his letter to her from Almora on July 29,1897, Swamiji wrote clearly -

“What was wanted was not a man, but a woman – a real lioness – to work for the Indians, women specially. 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 wanted.”

Miss Noble responded to the call despite being warned categorically of the many difficulties confronting a lady in a foreign land amidst hostile, totally
difficult and quite unknown working conditions.

The acceptance, however, was not that easy, as we have come to know now first hand from the accounts of one of her intimate friends who writes as follows –

“… she realised that ‘the call had come to her’, with clarion sound. It abode with her. It rang in her hearing through the hours and through the days. Finally, not without intense spiritual struggle, she accepted the inevitable renunciation, and, in a phrase, ‘ burnt her boats’; burnt them, because she was assured that, whatever might occur, she could never return to the old home, the old ways, the old familiar friends, except perhaps for an occasional brief vacation from the work to which she would wed herself.”

On January 28, 1898 Miss Margaret Noble landed at the Calcutta port and was received by Swamiji who had promised earlier in that July 25, 1897 letter that he would stand by her unto death, whether she worked for India or not, whether she remained in Vedanta or not.

After a few days’ stay in a hotel in the heart of the city, Miss Noble was taken to the newly purchased Math premises at Belur beside the Ganges. Two other earnest lady disciples of Swamiji, namely Mrs. Sara Chapman Bull and Miss Josephine MacLeod joined her a little afterwards and formed a close knit group which lasted till death rent them apart.

The events which occurred, her induction into Indian way of life, her initiation on March 25,1898 and her being re-christened as Bhagini (Sister) Nivedita (the Dedicated), her introduction to the educated and influential section of the society and delivering speeches on those occasions and, finally, her long trip of acquaintance with Indian conditions along with the rich simplicity of her culture and spirituality in the majestic back drop of the Himalayas in the company of the group and the Guru – are much too well - known and need not be repeated in detail.

In the meantime, on March 17, 1898, on “A day of Days”, Miss Margaret along with Sara and Miss Macleod was ushered by Swamiji to the presence of Holy Mother Sarada Devi to whom she was a Khukhi (a little girl, fondly called by the elders in Bengal) all her life . Sarada Devi blessed them all profusely and on November 13, 1898, the auspicious day of Kali Puja, performed the opening ceremony of the Sister’s school, saying –

“I pray that the blessings of the Great Mother of the Universe be upon this school and the girls it shall train be ideal girls.”

After being trained and guided by her Master for four years and a half, on July 04, 1902, the heaven seemed to have fallen on the Sister – Swamiji passed away at Nine in the night. It was a tremendous blow, the ground under her appeared to be shaking as she had been doing her work so far constantly with his guidance.

But she remained cool, quiet, gathering strength, seated not far from the pyre which burnt to ashes the mortal remains of the great soul. Nivedita wrote on July 10.1902 in a letter to Ms Mary Hale from her residence at 17 Bosepara Lane –

“I have scarcely a touch of sorrow – so great seems to be the Victory – So pure - so flawless. Swamiji is ours today as he has never been. The poor tortured body is released.”

And on top of that great loss came the decision to be separated from the Organisation of which she was made a Brahmacharin, a novitiate as a lady into the rigorous spiritual life, due to the compulsion of circumstances She had started taking interest in the freedom movement of the country and this inclination for the politics, and many other fields like science, art and culture was against the guiding principles of the sect she belonged to. On July 22, 1902 to the Editor of the Indian Mirror, a renowned newspaper of the time, Sister Nivedita begged to …

…inform the public that at the conclusion of the days of mourning for the Swami Vivekananda, it has been decided between the members of the Order at Belur Math and herself, that her work shall henceforth be regarded as free and entirely independent of their sanction and authority.

It was at this crucial moment SV’s “Sister Nivedita” was transformed to what Rabindranath Tagore called her while paying tribute to her unique personality and contribution, after her demise on October 13, 1911 –“ Lokomata Nivedita”, “Nivedita- A Mother to the People”, the appellate which was given earlier to another courageous lady, Rani Rasmoni who fought against the British in her own way ,one who was instrumental to the drama which was enacted at Dakshineswar beside the Ganges by her priest, Sri Ramakrishna at the Kali temple founded by her before.

This transformation from a Sister to a Mother, from an otherwise accomplished lady to a Hero(-ine) after Thomas Carlyle mould, was absolutely a need of the hour in Indian history. A hero actually is a product of his time – the historical forces throw up someone, capable to lead, to show the path to take at the criss-cross of apparently unrelated and quick happenings. One of the conditions set by Carlyle for the birth and growth of a Hero.

The sufferings of Indian people under subjugation had at the close of nineteenth century reached a stage when they were yearning to be set free from the yoke of a foreign rule. Its murmurings could be heard. Bankim Chandra Chattopadhya had in 1882 written the Anandamath where a band of Sannyasis who worshipped Goddess Durga, a deity with ten hands all armed in order to defeat the asuras, the demons, and organised themselves into an army of soldiers fighting the British. Anandamath it is that had given the initial impetus to be fearless in struggle with the clarion call of Bande Mataram, considering our country as a Motherland whose dignity need to be upheld.

It might be remembered that Congress, the party formed by a group of so called wealthy and educated people in 1884, was yet to gain the necessary momentum, but Swamiji, by his fiery speeches across the country after his return from the West, contained in Lectures from Colombo to Almora, had stirred the nation as never before. He proclaimed –

“My mission is not Ramakrishna’s , nor Vedanta’s nor of anything but simply to bring manhood to my people”

Nivedita carried forward the unfinished task of her master in organising the movement - both in the Congress and at the subterranean terrorist level, supporting first of all Jamshetji Tata’s unique gesture in the plan to found a science research Institute to be run by Indians all and then supporting Jagadish Chandra Bose’s activities, particularly assisting him actively in publishing his research findings at an international standard and at the same time looking for necessary funds to establish a research centre of his own.

All these, and many more, like encouraging the young artists of the time such as Nandalal Bose, Asit Halder, Suren Kar, Iswariprasad, even their much respected teachers Principal Haavell and Abanindranath Tagore revive Indian Art of the Ajanta Ellora tradition. To encourage Sir Jadunath Sarkar to write the history of India shorn of distortions, Sri Dinesh Chandra Sen coming up with the history of Bengali literature in English, having parleys with the poet Rabindranath Tagore, Ramesh Chandra Dutt, the Japanese friend Okakura, writing introduction for his book, Ideals of the East

How could a lady do all that and lots and lots more. One who would take care to have a look at the timeline of her brief and eventful life could not be surprised how could a woman do so much, as much as her Guru had done in his even briefer stay on earth. It seemed that she was possessed of a supreme energy which Thomas Carlyle would have called Heroic Vitality and we in the East would like to call as energetic as Dashabhuja, alluding to Goddess Durga with ten hands.

And it was not for nothing that Swami Vivekananda on his trip to Kashmir in August September in 1898 along with his lady disciples had, after offering his most earnest follower Nivedita to Lord Shiva at the Amarnath Cave, the beatific vision down in the plains of the most terrible, the deadly in the form of Kali, the Mother, in which title he had in a trance written one of his greatest poems. The vision, the feeling so intense that when communicated it caught Nivedita’s imagination like anything.

Back to Calcutta, she startled the distinguished persons of the time when on February 13, 1899 at the Albert Hall (now called Coffee House, the intellectual hub of the city) spoke on Kali and Her Worship and on May 28, Nivedita, barefooted like a devoted Indian woman, went over to the most holy of holy places in Calcutta, the Kalighat Temple and spoke again on the significance of the worship of Kali.

No wonder, her first book in India, Kali the Mother, published pocketsize in 1900 by Messers Sonnenschein & Co. Ltd., London was, as per the testimony of Sri Barindranath Ghosh, Sri Aurobindo’s younger brother, a handbook of the revolutionaries as was Bankimchandra’s Anandamath. Inspiring them to face the terrible and court death fearlessly.

In fact, Nivedita was a mother to many . She used to consider Dr. J. C. Bose as her “ Bairn”, a Scottish word meaning “a fond child”, although Dr. Bose was nine years elder to her. The great South Indian patriot poet, Subramanya Bharati recalled with feeling when Nivedita welcomed him with open arms at her home in Almora saying, “ Come, come, my Son “

Nivedita was the nucleus around whom many a movement of national regeneration, be it in the field of freedom movement, art, science, history, women education and empowerment, social service had its first stirring. Her stellar role in the Partition Movement of Bengal in the August of 1905, - when people angry rallied round her call in a rousing procession with the classic painting of Bharatmata by Sri Abanindranath Tagore and a crimson flag having the symbol of thunderbolt and Bande Mataram inscribed in it, singing patriotic songs all the while– the first fiery protest against Lord Curzon’s policy of Divide and Rule , has not been assessed properly.

And then the mayhem – the British overlords being targeted, hanging of the terrorists after summary trials, or sending them off to solitary and gruelling confinement at the Andaman islands , imprisonment of Sri Aurobindo and Deshbandhu Chittaranjan Das’s impassioned pleading to set him free – events which are much too well known to be repeated here.

How come all these happened without the surreptitious inspiration and planning of Bhagini (Sister), now transformed to, Lokomata Nivedita. In this sense, she too can be called the Mother of Maxim Gorky which was interestingly published about the same time in 1906.

Sri Aurobindo also had, after being freed from jail, composed a stirring Durga Stotra (Hymn to Goddess Durga) in 1909 invoking Her strength, Her blessings which can give Her sons and daughters dauntless courage to free themselves from bondage.

Nivedita herself derived inspiration from the Mother figure of Sri Abanindranath’s Bharatmata, a painting in which, according to her ‘spirit of the motherland as giver of Faith and Learning, of Clothing and Food, as giver of all good, yet eternally virgin, eternally rapt in prayer and gift ‘has been portrayed wonderfully. Elsewhere she had expressed the desire to have it painted,’ by tens and thousands, and scatter it broadcast over the land, till there was not a peasant’s cottage, or a craftsman’s hut, between Kedarnath and Cape Comorin, that had not this presentment of Bharat –Mata somewhere on its walls.”

It is said that Nivedita was wont to count Bharat Varsha, Bharat Varsha, Bharat Varsha, on her beads and then say Ma, Ma, Ma – her identification with the country of adoption was that complete. Indians were ‘our people’, ’my people’ to her.

Nivedita, like any mother or sister, was the embodiment of supreme self- sacrifice. The sign of thunderbolt that she discovered at the base of Bodhi Tree in Gaya where Buddha had his great moment of realisation and the story of Sage Dadhichi who did not hesitate a bit to give his life, as required by Indra, the King of the Gods, so that the mighty weapon Thunderbolt could be fashioned out of his bones in order to defeat the asuras, the demons – fascinated her and she thought to make the sign imprinted on the national flag of India when set free.

All her life, Nivedia had lived what she believed to be the highest ideal of an Indian way of life. She was the Sati, - the woman pure of India, ready to burn herself at the pyre of her husband, - of Nandalal Bose’s famous painting with that title. Much as we might decry the practice, Sister Nivedita appreciated the picture saying –

“We see before us a woman, beautiful indeed, and adorned like a bride, with her whole mind set on the moment of triumph …In this perfect fearlessness, this absence of any self-consciousness, what a witness we find to the Indian conception of the Glory of Woman !”

We have it Nandalal Bose saying that he had painted the figure of his Sati after the living example of Sister Nivedita who immolated herself most willingly at the altar of India and became Lokomata Nivedita of the Poet and Thomas Carlyle’s Hero (-ine).


More by :  Tarun Rana

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