Sister Nivedita & the struggle for the 'Consciousness of Unity'
Sister Nivedita’s adaptability and emphasis on overall excellence had attracted the most inspiring minds of the time, who sought her advice, opinion and even tacit influence, writes Anirban Ganguly.
It appears that Vivekananda had at times remarked to a group of disciples and friends towards the end that 'he counted on Nivedita to arouse political sense among Hindus. He wanted patriotism in India, love for the country.' He had, in that sense 'pledged her to serve India, and to sacrifice herself to the last renunciation'. As one of Nivedita's early biographers Lizelle Reymond (1899-1994) notes, Vivekananda is said to have observed once thus:
I see that the independence of India will come in some unthinkable way, but if you cannot make yourselves worthy of it, it will not live for three generations. India cannot be Japan or Russia. She must stand on her own ideal. She will have to build up a government that includes members of all castes, with no superiority complex between them. In a well-organised state, scholars, fighters, merchants, and labourers must be equally respected. Your first work is to educate the masses.
In this multi-dimensional action of hers, Nivedita inspired many in various forms – to some she was the educator, to others she appeared as the voice of Swadeshi expressions, to the young art aficionado she appeared as the guardian and guide for re-stating the Indian art forms, to the revolutionaries she appeared as their mentor, protector and benefactor, to the Westerners, who were sympathetic to India and silently worked towards articulating her aspirations, she was their leading voice to the wider world, to poverty and disease stricken villagers she appeared as their voice to a larger world. Nivedita was, as the well-known Indophile Jean-Herbert (1897-1980), in his moving preface to Lizelle Reymond's classic biography of hers described, 'both astonishingly multiple and profoundly one.'
These actions and concerns of her were reflected in her vigorous physical involvement and forceful expressions with and on India, as Swami Saradananda (1865-1927), the first Secretary of the Ramakrishna Mission once recalled, 'she trudged from village to village, wading through flood-waters and willingly going without food and sleep and accepting other physical hardship so that she could let the larger public know about the real situation'. It was this same sense of mission and self-dissolution that saw her broom in hand, sweeping and directing the cleaning of the streets of plague-stricken Calcutta. Her close collaborators and those who were associated with her in some public activities have left behind testimonies that best describe the multidimensionality of her personality.
To Benoy Kumar Sarkar (1887-1949), one of the leading social philosophers of a later era, who was then closely involved with the national education movement and had seen Nivedita at the height of her nationalist action, she was a 'humanist and a public worker in every field – patriotism, education, politics, nationalism, industry, history, moral reforms, social service, feminism and what not...She was a colleague of almost everybody who was anybody in the movement of those days in Calcutta...She was his [Vivekananda's] miraculous discovery for India, and grew into one of the profoundest treasures of the Indian people.'
The moderate leader, the veteran Surendranath Banerjee (1848-1925), saw Nivedita's every action, 'her every thought, all her emotions [veer] round India's hopes, aspirations and ideals...'
Ramananda Chatterjee (1865-1943), one of the doyens of nationalist journalism, founder of the Prabasi and The Modern Review, both avant-garde vehicles of nationalist thoughts that dominated the discourse of Indian nationalism for over half a century, was a close collaborator of Nivedita. Without conditions, Ramananda offered the pages of The Modern Review for Nivedita to express herself on India. Through its pages, Nivedita delineated, drew, articulated and imagined India of the ages. Through each subject that she chose to write on, she argued for the need to restate India's greatness and her civilisational achievements and she harped on how these were unique, unequalled, and therefore capable of imparting continued inspiration as well as the direction in the present struggle for self-expression. Her arguments were refreshing and synthesising, and through each paragraph, passage, and chapters she strove to express the eternal India, situating and positioning her in the struggle of the present, a present that she too shaped through dynamic public action.
Nivedita was indefatigable in her support of Ramananda's project of sustaining these crucial intellectual platforms. She not only wrote regularly for The Modern Review but also organised for it to be supported and nurtured. The help that she rendered, recalled Ramananda's daughter Shanta Devi (1894-1988) in her father's biography, was hardly equalled by anyone else. Nivedita's deep spiritual dimension, her fascinating strength of personality and character, her love of India, her life dedicated to the service of India, her many-sidedness, her knowledge, her art, her interesting capacity to write on a number of subjects and above all her deep power of discernment and of insight, all of these Ramananda held in great esteem and respect. Of her capacity to write, especially for a wider cross-section, Ramananda once observed that Nivedita was a "born journalist. She wrote with brilliancy, vigour and originality, and, even on commonplace themes, with something like inspired fervour.'
For a few years, their partnership in creating the new narrative of India, of trying to Indianise India was indeed striking and successful. Of Nivedita, Ramananda had once observed after her death, that 'a person of her intense spirituality, force of character, strength of mind, intellectual power and wide-range of studies could easily have chalked out for herself a career of distinction at home.'
Among the leading figures of the revolutionary movement and the Swadeshi period, with whom Nivedita collaborated was Sri Aurobindo (1872-1950). Lizelle Reymond notes how Nivedita celebrated Sri Aurobindo's release from the Alipore prison on being acquitted in the Alipore conspiracy case, by decorating 'her school, as for the most auspicious festival days, to celebrate his release.'
On her countrywide tours, after Vivekananda's passing, Nivedita met Sri Aurobindo, then in Baroda in the service of the Gaekwad. This meeting developed into a collaborative partnership in the revolution for India's freedom and ended when Sri Aurobindo left for the French enclave of Pondicherry, having entrusted to Nivedita the editorship of his English Karmayogin. 'To Aurobindo Ghose, Nivedita was the author of Kali, the Mother. To her, he was the leader of the future, whose fiery articles in the Indu Prakash – one of Bombay's large newspapers – had sounded opening guns in the coming struggle, four years before.' Both of them collaborated in the 'secret revolutionary field' and Nivedita saw the Swadeshi movement as an 'integral part of the National Righteousness' while Sri Aurobindo was one of the most articulate voices of that period calling for complete independence. In 1909, on his acquittal, Sri Aurobindo picked up the threads of the nationalist movement and Nivedita, who had just returned from a self-imposed exile in the West, joined him in this effort for rekindling the movement. In Sri Aurobindo, she saw 'the expression of life itself, the life of a new seed grown on the ancient soil of India, the logical and passionate development of all her guru's teachings.'
It was in the pages of the Karmayogin, which she edited for a while after Sri Aurobindo had given her its charge, that Nivedita, it may be argued, articulated her political will, motto or 'credo'. It was in these pages that her celebrated aspiration for the Indian nationalist was printed. This aspiration became or ought to have become the guiding slogan for the movement and continues to retain its relevance, its inspiring dynamism even to this day when debates and demands for India's dismemberment are often heard. As Reymond wrote: In the thirty-sixth number, [of the Karmayogin] dated March 12, 1910, she published her credo. This prayer was really her will—her renunciation of all political life –
I believe that India is one, indissoluble, indivisible.National Unity is built on the common home, the common interest, and the common love. I believe that the strength which spoke in the Vedas and Upanishads, in the making of religions and empires, in the learning of scholars and the meditation of the saints, is born once more amongst us, and its name today is Nationality. I believe that the present of India is deep-rooted in her past, and that before her shines a glorious future. O Nationality, come thou to me as joy or sorrow, as honour or as shame! Make me thine own! – NIVEDITA
That the revolutionary 'Tamil patriot-poet' Subramania Bharati (1882-1921), saluted Nivedita as his 'guru' shows the extent of her influence and the depth of the inspiration that she had generated. Bharati dedicated his 'first two books of poems to her and preserved the leaf of a Himalayan tree that she gave him and revered it till the end of his life.' It was Bharati, immersed in his reverence and deep admiration for Nivedita, who dedicated his group of poems on Bharat Mata and Shakti to her. In his own poem as tribute to her, Bharati addressing her as 'Nivedita, Mother', wrote of her as the 'Sun dispelling my soul's darkness, Rain to the parched land of our lives, Helper of the helpless, Offering of Grace, Destructive fire to the evil in men...'
(The author is Director, Dr. Syama Prasad Mookerjee Research Foundation, New Delhi.)