(Continued from the previous issue. . .)
Christine (1866-1930) of Detroit was just seventeen years old when her father died and she had to provide for her family which included five younger sisters. So she took up teaching in the local Pubic School. With a natural turn towards the spiritual, and intent on improving her capabilities, she attended the lectures of Swami Vivekananda in Detroit in 1894. The very first lecture so impressed the young lady that she became a life-long admirer and disciple of Swamiji. She has recorded her reactions when she heard him for the first time:
Never have I heard such a voice, so flexible, so sonorous. It was the voice of God to me! That range of emotion, that silvery music—I have never heard in any other. It was sheer music . . . It was the mind that made the first great appeal, that amazing mind! What can one say that will give even a faint idea of its majesty, its splendour? It was a mind so far transcending other minds, even of those who rank as geniuses . . . Its ideas were so clear, so powerful, so transcendental that it seemed incredible that they could have emanated from the intellect of a limited human being.
She followed this up by attending the Thousand Island Park retreat along with her friend, Mary Funke. Christine entered the world of renunciation with a rare intensity and Swamiji gave her initiation in 1895, allowing her to go up the first step, Brahmacharya. If dedicated women like Mrs. Bull and Mrs. Hale were considered by him as ‘mother’, young Christine would be his ‘daughter’. When Swamiji returned to India, Christine continued her career in Detroit and also helped in the Vedanta Society of that place. Later on, during a visit to Detroit, Swamiji stayed with Christine’s family for five days.
When Christine’s mother passed away, she felt free to go to India and take up Swami Vivekananda’s work of bringing education to Indian women. Ever since they met in 1894, there had been constant correspondence between the two and one is deeply touched by the paternal affection of Swami Vivekananda and the anxieties of Christine to spare him all worry and pain. Now Mrs. Ole Bull offered to help her to go to India, which was her dream-land of karma yoga. But by now Swami Vivekananda was quite ill. And Christine had her own problems. The letters of Swamiji inject strength into the young girl, full of idealism yet lacking the necessary wherewithal to make her dreams become a reality.
He writes on 12th December 1901:
Now, noble heart, take courage. Don’t mope: you have buffeted [too] many a storm in life, old war horse, to be like a silly boarding-school girl. Things must go all right. I am not going to die or to be ill just now; I am determined to be healthy. You know my grit.
Then he adds a little nursery rhyme to cheer up the devotee:
Here my story ends
And spinach top bends.
Why is spinach withering?
Because the goat is browsing.
Why is the goat browsing?
Because no grass is growing.
Why no grass is growing?
The gardener is not watering.
Why there is no watering?
The Master is not commanding.
Why is he not commanding?
An ant has bitten the Master!
Such was the unique master
Christine came to India in April 1902 and met Swamiji on 8th April at Belur. During the following weeks she came to Belur several times and had instruction from Swamiji. As May became very hot, he sent her away along with Sister Nivedita to Mayavati where Mrs. Sevier looked after them with maternal solicitude. On 5th July Christine received a letter from Sister Nivedita (who had returned to Calcutta in the middle of June) informing her about Swami Vivekananda’s passing the previous day. Christine returned to Calcutta, and showed how deep Swamiji’s inspiration ran in the psyche of his women disciples. Undeterred by harsh living conditions and financial insecurity, Christine chose to stay back in India and help Sister Nivedita in running her school and thus transform Swamiji’s dreams into reality.
The uncertainty of War years sent her back to America in 1914. She returned to India a decade later but found the situation vastly changed and could not get back to teaching in the school that had been founded by Sister Nivedita. She went back to America in 1928 and passed away two years later. Her presence in Swami Vivekananda’s spiritual ministry is a golden page of absolute faith and total surrender. Swami Vivekananda’s letters to Christine are a rich treasure house of crystalline affection and rich humour.
While there were innumerable admirers and quite a few devotees and helpers of Swami Vivekananda among women, one stands out as verily the Vajrayudha of Swami Vivekananda. Sister Nivedita leads them in every way. If today Indian women have gained the illumining and profitable worlds of knowledge, it is because Sister Nivedita came to India and did pioneering work for the cause of women’s education.
Also, guided by Swami Vivekananda, she taught us to respect our own tradition and draw sustenance from it instead of going the sapless way of material glitter in the West. And her brief but significant work for the cause of Indian independence just when the nation’s great leaders had been silenced in the first decade of the last century, calls out for our eternal gratitude.
She was born Margaret Elizabeth Noble on October 28, 1867 in a family that was religious but not fanatical. The Irish family was also intensely patriotic. She received a good education, but quite early in life had to take up a job, as her father died when she was ten years old. She chose the profession of a school teacher, and was happy to be one. Even as she taught, she kept improving herself by continuing to study, and became a good orator and writer. She joined the ‘Free Ireland’ group and began organising centres of resistance in the South of England. At the same time, she was also very much in demand as a journalist writing for Wimbledon News, Daily News and Review of Reviews.
She could never be satisfied with the humdrum life of a young middle-class woman. There were questions that rose from her inner world. Was this world a chaos of contraries, life and death, love and hate? Or was there a power that was consciously guiding the destiny of mankind? If so, what kind of power could it be? Twice she had to face disappointment in love. Life seemed pointless without an aim, without an ideal. It was at this juncture in her life in 1895 that Lady Isabel Margesson invited her to hear a Hindu Swami speak at her home.
When Margaret entered Lady Isabel’s drawing room, she found a tall and well-built young man in ochre robes sitting self-lost in a chair. As the audience remained completely silent, full of expectancy, a prayer rose from Swami Vivekananda: ‘Shiva, Shiva, Namah Shivaaya!’ His listeners remained spell-bound, while the Swami spoke in well-modulated tones. Margaret was all attention.
The Swami wanted to eradicate India’s poverty and illiteracy and restore its ancient glory. Religion, according to him, would be meaningful to the masses only if they could be assured of food and clothing. Again, his religion would not be a sectarian, compartmentalised dead-end. He was bringing Sri Ramakrishna’s universal outlook, which had the sanction of even the ancient Vedas. For turning his tremendous dreams into reality he needed money and manpower. True, he had a band of devoted fellow-disciples back home, but the hurdles were too many. However, with the help of the West which was rich in material things, Indian spirituality will rise again and would help the West as well.
Margaret attended more lectures by Swami Vivekananda and took part in group discussions. She realised that the Divine had taken her future in hand. She was a strong personality and the Swami was not in a hurry to recruit her though he realised that this intense lady would be the woman he needed to take up an important aspect of his work, which was to educate the children of India’s marginalised, poverty-stricken masses.
As he told her: ‘Their lot is so lamentable that they imagine they are born to be oppressed by all those who have money. They have completely lost their individuality.’ And Indian women, rich, middle-class or poor, all of them needed to be educated too. The Swami could not yet get over the sad life of his favourite sister and felt education was a panacea that could draw the Indian woman from the clutches of unworthy men. So he told Margaret: ‘I have been making plans for educating the women of my country. I think you could be of great help to me.’
After Swami Vivekananda returned to India, the two continued to correspond. When Margaret decided to come to India, he wrote to her the famous letter in which he said: ‘The tusks of the elephant come out but never go back; so are the words of a man never retracted. I promise you I will stand by you unto death.’
Margaret’s life and ministry in India is the saga of a heroic age. She came in 1898 and was initiated by Swami Vivekananda on March 25 at Belur and became a probationer of the Order of Sri Ramakrishna, and was given the name, Nivedita. After a session of meditation and music in which the monks participated, the Swami pointed to the opposite bank of the Ganges and said:
Nivedita, that is where I would like to have a convent for women. Like a bird that needs two wings to fly, India must have both educated men and educated women.
Sister Nivedita plunged into work immediately. Calcutta was racked by plague, and she performed miracles of endurance bringing succour to the people. With little means at her disposal, she opened the first school for girls in November of the same year. Among the problems she had to encounter was the intransigence of Indian families, which frowned upon educating a female child. Sister Nivedita had to go abroad for collecting funds. She had to study a lot of Indian philosophical and religious literature to be worthy of becoming a nun of the Order. There were long trips she had to undertake within India.
But the idealism burnt steadily, in spite of innumerable hurdles and disappointments. The school prospered somehow after a couple of stoppages and soon became an icon for women’s emancipation. Sister Nivedita’s success lay in the method she adopted to bring education to Indian masses. She used the timetested habit of storytelling, which was a great force in educating Indians. She would relate the subject to historical details about India. In this manner she instilled in her students a reverence and pride for their own traditions. Her studies for this approach resulted in a couple of classics from her pen: Footfalls of Indian History and Cradle Tales of Hinduism.
Sister Nivedita realised that India’s unrivalled, integrating culture that had spread from the Himalayas in the North to Kanyakumari in the South was due to this closeness with the ancient epics, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, a closeness that had been attacked and almost severed by the Colonial style of education:
These two great works form together the outstanding educational agencies of Indian life. All over the country, in every province, especially during the winter session, audiences of Hindus and Mohammedans gather round the Brahmin storyteller at nightfall, and listen to his rendering of the ancient tales. The Mohammedans of Bengal have their own version of the Mahabharata.
This is why she would never call Indian women as ever having been illiterate. They had imbibed the best in the Indian tradition and strove to bring up their children as a Rama or Krishna, Arjuna or Karna, Sita or Savitri.
The passing away of Swami Vivekananda in 1902 was to be a great test of faith for Sister Nivedita. With her characteristic resilience she triumphed over her doubts and depression and continued with her work. Now it was expanded into actually working for the nationalist cause. On the one hand she was helping the great scientist Jagadish Chandra Bose, rendering editorial assistance for preparing his research papers and getting sponsorships for him.
On the other, she was in close touch with the leading lights of the National Movement like Sri Aurobindo, Bhupendranath Dutt and Barindra Kumar Ghose. When Sri Aurobindo went into self-exile, she edited his Karmayogin with mastery. At one time, she had even to move around incognito which she did with becoming verve as a very fashionable lady in whom neither her friends nor the British police recognised Sister Nivedita who used to be clad in an ochre robe, having no ornaments except a necklace of Rudraksha beads!
Her Influence on Subramanya Bharati
Swami Vivekananda-Sister Nivedita are very close to the Tamil consciousness. Sister Nivedita’s special contribution to Tamil Nadu was the manner in which she inspired the great nationalist poet Subramania Bharati to become a champion of women’s emancipation to work against casteism.
Bharati had gone to Calcutta in 1905 and sought to pay his respects to Sister Nivedita. The moment he saw her, he knew he was in the presence of a tremendous power, a Shakti. When she learnt that he did not bring his wife with him ‘as she would not understand about great Movements like the Congress,’ she flared up:
How can one half of a society win freedom when it enslaves the other half? Let the past be forgotten. Henceforth, do not think of her as something different. Hold her as your left hand and praise her in your heart as an angel.
She also asked him to eschew all ideas of caste, class and birth and enthrone only love in his heart. Her flaming example led Subramanya Bharati to become an intense nationalist for she opened the upper part of her gown in a frenzy and thundered: ‘Your people must become brave. You must have daring to stab us here!’
Henceforth Bharati considered her to be his guru, dedicated his first two books of poems to her and preserved the leaf of a Himalayan tree she gave him and revered it till the end of his life. One can gauge her inspiration in his poems on Shakti. Though she passed away on October 11, 1911, Bharati’s gem-like poem is a living memorial to Swami Vivekananda’s disciple Sister Nivedita, the flaming pioneer of the Omnipotent Shakti who had come to befriend and guide the modern Indian woman:
Temple consecrated to love,
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,
My salutation to you, Mother.
Thus we see how Swami Vivekananda trained his women disciples, some of whom we have described in this article, and how they played a pivotal role in carrying out his spiritual and social ministration. (Concluded.)
Source : Vedanta Kesari, March, 2015