Sister Nivedita & the struggle for the 'Consciousness of Unity'
To realise the essence of a true patriot, it is imperative to remember Nivedita’s teachings, her pantheons and most importantly, her unflinching devotion to Mother India, writes Anirban Ganguly.
The editor of the 'Empire' – an ardently imperialist paper – while writing a foreword to an anthology of her selected essays, best expressed the emotions that Sister Nivedita evoked in all those who came to know and understand her; emotions that arose – as evident from his formulations of them – transcending political positioning, cultural barriers and ideological divides. 'High-souled purity and infinite devotion', wrote A.J.F. Blair, 'are the thoughts that ever spring to the mind at the very mention of her name. To those who knew her, she was an embodied conscience. As her clear eyes searched one through and through, so did the white flame of her moral fervour burn out and wither up all the baser elements in one's nature. No man or woman ever faced that scrutiny without emerging from it purified and strengthened.'
Her being, what Blair termed, '…vehemently, nay, fanatically anti-British', did not prevent her from commanding the respect and admiration of both the empire apologist as well as the revolutionary nationalist. To the imperialists, Nivedita continued to remain an enigma – one from among their climes and thoughts and yet, so radically different in all her visions and actions; to the people with whom she had mingled and eventually become one, she remained a 'living representation of their life and ideals…consciously [voicing] the silent want and the voiceless need of millions [uttering] unto them that message which all the powers of her soul, even at the sacrifice of her own self, formulated as the national consciousness.'
Henry Nevinson (1856-1941), a British journalist with sympathies for the early nationalist movement in India, who closely followed and recorded the political developments of the Swadeshi period and the Congress split in Surat in 1907, echoed Blair when he spoke of Nivedita's intense passion for India, 'I do not know whether on the religious side it could be said of Nivedita, as of the philosopher, that she was drunk with God; but on the side of daily life and political thought, it might certainly be said that she was drunk with India.'
The political dimension and aspiration was intense in Nivedita, she was however conscious that such an urge did not perhaps fit into Swami Vivekananda's programme and yet, she saw it coming upon her, she saw its inevitability in her scheme of things. Nivedita confessed as much in a letter to Josephine Macleod (1858-1949), ''Freedom means something to me. My life has come to include many elements that Swami would probably never have put there. They are all for him, however. I trust in the end, and he will not hold me less his child than before... But I see the political need so clearly too! That is all I mean – and to that, I must be true...'
She saw the need for political freedom first, though her thoughts 'were not essentially different from the Swami's ideas of love and service to India, they had' eventually taken a 'different turn with regard to the means.' Political freedom had to be preceded by all other freedom. That the political churning in her continued is seen from another letter written from the same quiet and pristine surroundings of Bergen in which she was more forthright and unabashedly political:
I am doing nothing FOR India. [sic] I am learning and galvanising. [sic] I am trying to see how the plant grows. When I have really understood that, I shall know that there is nothing to be done, except defence, I fancy. India was absorbed in study: a gang of robbers [colonial rulers] came upon her and destroyed her land. The mood is broken. Can the robbers teach her anything? No, she has to turn them out and go back to where she was before. Something like that, I fancy, is the true programme for India. And so I have nothing to do with Xtians or Government-agencies, as long as the government is Foreign. That which is Indian for India, I touch the feet of, however stupid and futile. Anything else will do a little good and much harm, and I have nothing to do with it. …Oh! India! India! Who shall undo this awful doing of my nation to you? Who shall atone for one of the million bitter insults showered daily on the bravest and keenest, nerved and best of all your sons?
The impressions and inspirations left behind by personalities such as Sister Nivedita, who have had an intense and indissoluble tie with India, are in a sense, never lost; they remain embedded in the national psyche and can be re-invoked and re-assimilated at propitious moments. It is through such periodic re-invocations and remembrances that the flame of faith and of sraddhā is kept tended.
Yet, seeing her compact and whirlwind contribution during a crucial phase of India's early nationalist movement, one wonders as to how it is that Nivedita was eventually marginalised, the memories of her contributions limited to a few and she herself finding mention only within a limited circle. Was she too identified with a certain narrative of India, which the intellectual gatekeepers in India, especially post-independence have found too difficult to handle? Is it the case that Nivedita's open and frank expressions of her positions on a number of issues afflicting India, her open advocacy of civilisational India, her frank, inspiring and detailed examination of Hinduism and her unequivocal call to regenerate and revivify Hinduness as a sina qua non for a many faceted national awakening – she was never hesitant to say that that 'I belong to Hinduism more than I ever did' – her appeal across geographical and ideological divides have made it politically incorrect to analyse and disseminate her thoughts and has made those who have controlled the creation of the Indian narrative, through our many institutions, in the last four odd decades, try to marginalise her. Why is it that we hear so less, or our young learners are taught next to nothing about Nivedita's ideas of India? Why is it that Nivedita the nationalist has so few interpreters, why is it that her prolific intellectual output, soaked in the sense of India, have not been included in our curricula and has not witnessed sufficient dissemination?
I have argued that the retention and rekindling of the memories of such consecrated actions and their dissemination across our national life can alone guarantee the retention and perpetuation of our civilisational identity and message. Sister Nivedita's life and message remains an unfailing guarantor in that sense. What has been said in the context of Vivekananda can easily be repeated for Nivedita. Philosopher administrator Chaturvedi Badrinath (1933-2010), in his moving study 'Swami Vivekananda – the living Vedanta' wrote, thus, 'I maintain that not until Swami Vivekananda is felt contemporaneously will he ever be understood in the fullness of his being. You don't simply read a man like Vivekananda. In reading him, you meet him. And if you don't meet him and feel him contemporaneously, you can understand little of the meaning of what he is saying. Indeed, this is true about any great thinker who keeps thinking about life and not just keeps talking metaphysics.' Such an argument can easily be made for Nivedita as well, this reflection was a faint effort to try to make Nivedita be felt contemporaneously, or at least generate an urge to try to re-discover her contemporaneously.
It is the narrative of Nivedita, the nationalist that continues to remain of great interest – she had once confessed thus, 'Swami Vivekananda shall be the whole of my religion and my patriotism – it this dimension that still retains the capacity to inspire. Every action that she initiated, in each area of activity that she focused upon, Nivedita did so through the prism of nationalism.
As an unapologetic nationalist, an Indian nationalist, she demonstrated a complete identification with the movement for India's self-recovery. For her 'The Unity of India' was an unalterable and eternal reality, to be accepted, realised, internalised and protected, 'Either the unity of India exists today or there shall never be unity amongst us', she once observed in a talk on the subject, 'Do not allow people to tell you that that unity does not exist. Do not allow, what we call in the English language, those crocodile-tears of a false patriotism that declares we are weak, we are divided, miserable, helpless and bound', the collective aspiration should be rather to 'try, struggle and strive' so that 'we may be able to undo all this' – all that has divided us, created fissures, doubts and despair.
The need to 'educate ourselves in the consciousness of our own unity', Nivedita saw as one of the first tasks before us, 'We have to saturate our own subconscious mind with the thought of it. We have so to make it a part of ourselves that we react instinctively on its behalf.' Without respite, she argued that 'perfect harmony and mental cohesion of the body-politic [was] the necessary antecedent of political mastery which is another name for that relative good which we call national freedom.'
Nivedita's life in India ceaselessly revolved around that quest for nurturing the 'consciousness of our unity', it sustained her, it drove her and eventually consumed her. Vivekananda had directed Nivedita, in those early days, to strive to be to India's future sons – '[the] mistress, servant, friend in one.' Nivedita, in the few years that were given to her in India, strove towards that.
Her life continues to remain a narrative that is worth reflecting and meditating upon, especially on the 150th year of her birth.
(The author is Director, Dr Syama Prasad Mookerjee Research Foundation, New Delhi.)